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Electronic Eavesdropping

Story by Brittany Hallin
Photos by Andrew Seng
Design by Delaney Pratt

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Upon boarding a bus, TriMet passengers are informed about on-board audio recording devices by a placard placed near the driver’s seat. Most passengers are aware of video surveillance that has been a standard on TriMet since 1997, but many passengers haven’t realized their conversations are being documented as well.

Every weekday at 3 p.m., Jonathon Antonson grabs his cap and briefcase, closes up his cubicle, and navigates through the bustling streets of Portland, Oregon’s city center. For Antonson, it’s that sacred part of the day when work ends and the commute home in the Oregon drizzle begins. At the Route 96 bus stop, he leaves behind the eccentric city to board the 3:15 southbound bus for his home in nearby Tualatin. Settling into one of the few vacant seats, Antonson is surrounded by a constant stream of conversation weaving through the vessel. Comrades exchange gossip, businessmen banter political commentary, and mothers entertain their children. Passengers are talking, and the bus is listening.

In of October 2012, TriMet, a division of Portland’s public transit system, purchased 55 new 3000 Series buses equipped with a high-tech surveillance system that records audio in addition to the already established video surveillance system. Video has been a standard form of surveillance since it was introduced to Portland’s bus and rail system in 1997, but the ability to capture passengers’ conversations is the latest feature to aid the city in monitoring happenings in its public transportation system. This advanced audio system, however, has spurred a flurry of debate surrounding passengers’ right to privacy.

According to a newsletter released by TriMet in January, the system is meant to provide a fuller account of TriMet-related incidents by having a clearer record of happenings on buses. Some recognize this as an act by TriMet to improve riders’ commuting experience and to maintain the level of security TriMet has already established: In 2012 it averaged less than three crime reports per day—most of which were not crimes against citizens but rather instances of vandalism and property damage, according to a TriMet report on the company’s website.

Despite the justification for security, American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon Executive Director, David Fidanque, is concerned that the buses’ audio recording devices may conflict with Oregon law, which prohibits recording a conversation, or a portion of it, if all parties haven’t been informed of the audio documentation. Fidanque acknowledges the value in video surveillance because it can provide accurate accounts of incidents along a bus route, but he says audio monitoring technology is an incremental step in reducing citizens’ privacy rights. “If we have no expectation of privacy for conversations we have on public transit, why would we have a reasonable expectation of privacy anywhere else?” Fidanque says.

Coworkers Jonathon Antonson (Left) and Brad Johnson (Right) debate whether it is ethical for TriMet to implement audio surveillance in its buses. Antonson believes TriMet’s use of audio recording devices can benefit the community, but Johnson believes the audio surveillance on TriMet is an unnecessary invasion of privacy.

His worry is rooted in the fact that ubiquitous audio recording means all passengers must surrender speech privacy on buses at all times. Once people become accustomed to giving up those privacy rights, Fidanque says standardized audio surveillance may eventually become the norm in other settings like stores and restaurants. “Do we really want to give the government permission to keep records of our conversations using technology that is available today and that will only get more sophisticated over time?” Fidanque asks.

But unlike Fidanque, Antonson says his feelings about TriMet’s audio recording capabilities are neutral, and that he actually finds comfort in the added surveillance.

“It’s nice to know there is something out there that can prove what somebody might have said,” Antonson says. “I think it’s just something people are going to have to come to terms with for the greater good. It’s not going to make everybody happy.”

Antonson’s claim is valid—not everyone is happy. Brad Johnson, Antonson’s coworker who commutes via TriMet four days a week, shares Fidanque’s concerns. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then it’s not necessary,” Johnson says. “Will things be taken out of context?”

TriMet Chief Media Relations Officer, Mary Fetsch, emphasizes that the new audio system is incident based. She says unless criminal activity or an accident occurs, audio is recorded over within three days of its original documentation. The recordings will only be retrieved when a complaint requires investigation.

Fetsch says this advanced system will create a more complete picture when investigating incidents such as collisions or injury claims. She says the main goal of these audio recorders—which came as a standardized feature in the new buses—is to better the TriMet experience for riders. “These systems can act as a deterrent to criminal and inappropriate behavior. They can also be used as a training tool, teaching operators how to deal with different scenarios. This system will help advance TriMet’s safety initiatives,” Fetsch says.

TriMet’s insistence that the system is standard, as well as the promise to erase audio files, is not enough for those who oppose the system. There are concerns that this is an unjustified recording of information—regardless of how it is processed or what it is being used for after it is stored. To adhere to Oregon law, TriMet has placed signs alerting passengers that their actions and conversations are being recorded. The gray area, however, lies in what constitutes adequately informing riders about this electronic eavesdropping.

The blue and white placards that read “Security cameras with audio onboard” are hung near the front of the bus on the driver’s side, and Fidanque is troubled by the fact that this is typically the only sign on a bus. He also points out that the signs don’t necessarily warn everyone about the audio recording, especially passengers who are blind. “My opinion is a sign doesn’t cut it,” Fidanque says

“I think we’re heading in that way anyway,” Antonson says. He believes advances in technology will inevitably make video and audio monitoring easier, making increased surveillance inescapable. In Atonson’s opinion, the system implemented on buses is just a part of the natural progression of surveillance techniques—cameras became standard, and now audio is the next step. “We’ve got the technology, so why not use it to protect most of the citizens?” Antonson says.

It is arguable whether TriMet has the right idea in recording audio. Rather than a direct concern for personal privacy, what some find most disturbing based on principle is recording information before it serves a specific purpose: “The surveillance system is incredibly convenient, but we shouldn’t be asked to give up our privacy in exchange for being able to use technology. We should be able to have both,” Johnson says.

While questions remain about where to draw the line between privacy invasion and necessary surveillance for riders’ protection, citizens and officials will continue to discuss the controversy. And that’s a conversation worth listening in on.

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