DHS funding municipal transit-surveillance systems?

posted at 9:21 am on December 12, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Should the federal government fund the development and installation of surveillance equipment in municipal mass-transit systems?  Josh Peterson at the Daily Caller reports on DHS grants going to cities to allow them to “eavesdrop on bus ride conversations,” but the only real issue I see here is a question of federalism and budget deficits:

The federal government is funding upgrades to public-transit surveillance systems, augmenting existing video surveillance capabilities on city buses across the U.S. with audio-recording equipment.

The effort is part of a high-tech expansion of law enforcement capabilities, further eroding expectations of privacy.

“In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant,” The Daily reported Monday, stating that the federal government is providing some assistance to other cities.

“Officials in Concord, N.C., for example, used part of a $1.2 million economic stimulus grant to install a combined audio and video surveillance system on public transit vehicles, records show,” reported The Daily.

In order to get outraged by this, one would have to assume that there is an expectation of privacy on a city bus. The only way one could make this assumption is to never have ridden on a city bus in one’s entire life.  Not only are conversations not private, you spend most of the time wishing that people would quit making their conversations so public.  Whether it’s in-person ranting or cell phone calls that reveal far too much personal information, it’s pretty clear that few seem to mind discussing practically anything with anyone on mass transit.

The technology to do this is hardly new, by the way.  I haven’t worked in the retail security industry for several years now, but it was old hat even then.  There were legal considerations for our retail customers about recording audio along with video in states with tricky wiretapping laws, but most of those concerns came from an abundance of caution rather than actual legal restrictions (in other words, they preferred to avoid lawsuits rather than being forced to win them).  Generally speaking, courts don’t give much presumption of privacy in conversations held in the public square.

It’s clear why DHS would be interested in this technology for mass transit.  The Madrid and London transit bombings by al-Qaeda certainly give impetus to providing extra security — although in this case, it would be more valuable as an investigative tool after the fact than an intervention tool to stop one.  Still, this technology is hardly so cost-prohibitive that it requires federal intervention to accomplish, and the funding for it should come from those specific communities.

Update: Forbes’ Kashmir Hill noted yesterday that these systems have been around for five years. And, as I figured, their value is entirely in after-the-fact investigations and perhaps some deterrence.

Update II: Let’s remember that these transit systems are owned and operated by the same governments that put surveillance systems in them.  They have more of an ownership position in this case than on “city streets.”  One can choose not to ride city buses and light rail if the surveillance systems offend them, and find their own means to travel.  No one is forced to ride municipal transit, although everyone is forced to pay for it.


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Why not go full soviet and bug people’s homes?

tom daschle concerned on December 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM

Still, this technology is hardly so cost-prohibitive that it requires federal intervention to accomplish, and the funding for it should come from those specific communities.

Which raises the question as to why its such a priority with them?

sharrukin on December 12, 2012 at 9:26 AM

tom daschle concerned on December 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM

Seems Ed won’t have a problem with that as long as there is money to pay for it.

dmann on December 12, 2012 at 9:27 AM

BTW, not having an expectation of privacy is one thing, and being under constant surveillance by an omnipresent state is another.

sharrukin on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Seems Ed won’t have a problem with that as long as there is money to pay for it.

dmann on December 12, 2012 at 9:27 AM |

Yes, because there is no difference in privacy expectations between one’s home and a government-operated bus. Get a grip.

Ed Morrissey on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Well, since the left’s plan is to eventually outlaw private transportation and move us all into gigantic urban centers, they need the ability to watch us at all times. The bigger the government, the more paranoid it becomes.

darwin on December 12, 2012 at 9:33 AM

In order to get outraged by this, one would have to assume that there is an expectation of privacy on a city bus.

Well there’s privacy, then there’s privacy.

I might not mind having the lady in the seat in front of me listening to me babble on, but that’s a far cry from having Uncle Sam’s eavesdropping become normative.

This in itself is not the point anyhow.

Banning 17 oz sodas is not the point.

Banning salt and trans fats is not the point.

Cameras everywhere is not the point.

Each is a chip out of the wall of liberty.

There may be no expectation of privacy on a city street, but does that mean that there is an expectation that every move I make and word I say will be recorded?

Each incremental expansion of govt power is a camel’s nose under the tent. But at this point it’s probably too late so what the hell’s the point?

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Yes, because there is no difference in privacy expectations between one’s home and a government-operated bus. Get a grip. Ed Morrissey on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

See may last post.

Is it fair that only bus riders, and not private vehicle operators, should be comprehensively surveilled? Oh that’s right, data recorders for all new cars coming right up.

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Old and busted: If you see something, say something.

New and cool: if you say something, we heard it.

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:39 AM

Why not go full soviet and bug people’s homes?

tom daschle concerned on December 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM

The only people who need to be worried about their houses being bugged are people who are intending to commit crimes in the first place, right? If you do what the government tells you to do, you have nothing to fear, I guess. Or something like that.

The other day I saw “Enemy of the State” on TV. The movie was made by Hollywood liberal Tony Scott. It was all about how Republicans were snooping on individuals they didn’t like and gathering information that could be used for blackmail. Those were the days, weren’t they? You know what I mean–when liberals were apoplectic because their privacy rights were eroding. Now that Obama and the Democrats are in power, Democrats have doubled down on every big-government expansion W ever made, and where is the outrage from liberals now?

I guess liberals and “conservatives” have finally found common cause in Statism. Well, at least we’re all getting along now.

By the way, what is Republicanism actually for any more? Libertarianism is beginning to look more and more appealing.

Burke on December 12, 2012 at 9:49 AM

They have cameras on the bus in my city, but that’s because they’re ridden by every gangster, drunk, crazy bag lady, and welfare momma wit’ an attytude.

MelonCollie on December 12, 2012 at 9:50 AM

more valuable as an investigative tool after the fact

Which presents a problem right there.

Law Enforcement’s job is primarily to solve crimes not to prevent them. The adoption of extensive surveillance is commonly used as a justification to adopt a much more passive and less costly approach to law enforcement. In the case of cops this means less of a presence on the streets.

If they have the crime on tape and that leads to an arrest and a conviction, they’ve done their job technically.

CorporatePiggy on December 12, 2012 at 9:52 AM

Looks like I had some comments pulled from last night…. said some things that might have been taken wrong. Apologies to the management – it wasn’t intentional!

cane_loader on December 12, 2012 at 10:05 AM

Ed Morrissey on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Please, you make a highly technical legal argument about the expectation of privacy whilst our borders are wide open and this administration continues to use the DHS as a shiv driven into the Bill of Rights. There is little left to get a grip on……….

dmann on December 12, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Don’t worry, a lot of it will go into the general maintenance budget, without any consequences for not using the funds for security:

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/matier-ross/article/Muni-uses-feds-funds-for-cameras-it-doesn-t-use-3572845.php

Shaughnessy on December 12, 2012 at 10:14 AM

All Republican’s in Congress seen nodding in absolute approval.

Mr. Arrogant on December 12, 2012 at 10:21 AM

The ever-diminishing expectation of privacy is insidious. Some years ago, I would have some reasonable expectation of privacy where today it’s gone. Today’s expectation threshhold is significantly different from that of the recent past.

It’s not right we live in an ever-increasingly public way.

freedomfirst on December 12, 2012 at 10:39 AM

I might not mind having the lady in the seat in front of me listening to me babble on, but that’s a far cry from having Uncle Sam’s eavesdropping become normative.

Each incremental expansion of govt power is a camel’s nose under the tent. But at this point it’s probably too late so what the hell’s the point?

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:34 AM

This is what I was getting at.

freedomfirst on December 12, 2012 at 10:44 AM

Yes, because there is no difference in privacy expectations between one’s home and a government-operated bus. Get a grip.

Ed Morrissey on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Try telling Benjamin Franklin to get a grip Ed.

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Benjamin Franklin

SWalker on December 12, 2012 at 10:50 AM

In order to get outraged by this, one would have to assume that there is an expectation of privacy on a city bus.

Have you always loved Big Brother?

Why not go full soviet and bug people’s homes?

tom daschle concerned on December 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM

As Neo-Trot Petraeus informs us, that’s what “smart appliances” are for.

CIA Chief: We’ll Spy on You Through Your Dishwasher

Is it fair that only bus riders, and not private vehicle operators, should be comprehensively surveilled? Oh that’s right, data recorders for all new cars coming right up.

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Ah yes. The bipartisan success known as MAP21. And some wonder why libertarians hate roads.

Everyone in US Under Virtual Surveillance – NSA Whistleblower

slickwillie2001 on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 AM

Interesting times…

They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.
[...]
WB: The problem is if they think they are not doing anything that’s wrong, they don’t get to define that. The central government does, the central government defines what is right and wrong and whether or not they target you. So, it’s not up to the individuals. Even if they think they aren’t doing something wrong, if their position on something is against what the administration has, then they could easily become a target.

Rae on December 12, 2012 at 12:14 PM

Everyone in US Under Virtual Surveillance – NSA Whistleblower

slickwillie2001 on December 12, 2012 at 11:36 AM

Yes, and it’ll get a lot more scary when the datamining tools are perfected. At the moment there’s just a gigantic dataset and some relatively crude tools to mine it, if you know what you are looking for.

What comes next is sci-fi horror actualized.

CorporatePiggy on December 12, 2012 at 12:47 PM

BTW, not having an expectation of privacy is one thing, and being under constant surveillance by an omnipresent state is another.

sharrukin on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Very well and succinctly put.

Alana on December 12, 2012 at 1:00 PM

Maybe this is another way to look at the Homeland Security budget.

First there has been one form or another of the DHS since 1962 when they had a budget of $566 Million. They were rated 10th from the bottom in government funding.

In 1992 things changed through necessary. They became different were funded $7.577 Billion. They were rated 13th from the bottom in government spending.

By 2012 things change. They are funded at $60.443 Billion. They are now rated 19th from the bottom.

For 2013 things change again. They are funded $55.345 Billion. A Drop? They are now rated 17th from the bottom. What happened?

Some of their funding is placed in other budgets. $17.9 Billion in the DoD Budget, $4.1 Billion in DHHS, $4.0 Billion in DOJ Budget and about $7.4 Billion in other departments.

Looks to me that this is a Department that has grown a bit out of control. With little Congressional oversight. A growth rate and budget that some one maybe trying to hide and an operational scope that is be on the original intent.

This may be Governmental Empire Building at it’s best.

jpcpt03 on December 12, 2012 at 1:49 PM

privacy = security…

equanimous on December 12, 2012 at 1:51 PM

Welcome to Amerika, the fascist, surveillance, police state. Keep drinking the koolaid, Ed.

woodNfish on December 12, 2012 at 1:58 PM

One can choose not to ride city buses and light rail if the surveillance systems offend them, and find their own means to travel.

Like teleportation?

TSA’s Grip on Internal Travel is Tightening
http://tdvmedia.com/getblog.php?id=78&ac=83GY0Z1T

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is tightening its grip on domestic travel. I don’t mean the random, unpredictable security checks at bus, subway and train stations which already exist. I mean a coordinated and systematic police control of internal travel within America. Groundwork is being laid.

APPLICATION TO MAKE U.S. INTO AN AIRPORT SCREENING ZONE

The application was tucked away on page 71431 of Volume 77, Number 231 of the Federal Register (November 30). It was surrounded by soporific references to forwarding “the new Information Collection Request (ICR) abstracted below to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review and approval under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).”

The application for funding from the TSA constitutes a preliminary step toward systematically expanding TSA’s authority from airports to highways and almost every other means of public travel. The expansion would erase one of the last remaining differences between the US and a total police state; namely, the ability to travel internally without being under police surveillance. The total police state you experience at airports wants to spill into roads and bus stops, to subways and trains. Or, rather, the TSA wants to solidify and spread the fledgling and erratic presence it already has.
[...]
Those who fret over their continued ability to travel abroad should glance over their shoulders to glimpse what is happening to travel within America. The two are politically connected, intimately so. Many of the same methods that now restrict foreign travel will be used within America because the same agency will handle both: the TSA in its many manifestations. They might be called BASE agents or VIPRs (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response), like the ones who partnered with law enforcement in 2011 in Tennessee to conduct random “terrorist” checkpoints on highways. They may be the specially trained clerks who sell you a ticket . But TSA agents in whatever guise are coming to the highway, bus stop and train station you frequent.

Rae on December 12, 2012 at 5:46 PM

In order to get outraged by this, one would have to assume that there is an expectation of privacy on a city bus. The only way one could make this assumption is to never have ridden on a city bus in one’s entire life.

No. It’s also possible to be outraged at the idea of being under government surveillance, which is what this is. We don’t expect to walk around outside without being noticed or seen by other people, but surely we can prefer to walk around outside without being noticed and actively watched by the government.

Axe on December 12, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Each incremental expansion of govt power is a camel’s nose under the tent. But at this point it’s probably too late so what the hell’s the point?

Akzed on December 12, 2012 at 9:34 AM

The Federalist Papers.

Axe on December 12, 2012 at 6:34 PM

BTW, not having an expectation of privacy is one thing, and being under constant surveillance by an omnipresent state is another.

sharrukin on December 12, 2012 at 9:32 AM

Yeah. ^That.

Axe on December 12, 2012 at 6:37 PM

…big brother!

KOOLAID2 on December 12, 2012 at 11:15 PM

Those cameras could very well save more than they cost. They deter claims fraud when a vehicle gets in an accident, and they’ve led to the arrest of people who try and sue the transit agency for non-existent injuries and people who never were on the bus at the time of the accident but still get in line to sue.

Otto Zilch on December 13, 2012 at 8:53 AM