When you ride on buses or trains in many parts of the United States, what you say could be recorded. Get on a New Jersey Transit light rail train in Hoboken or Jersey City, for example, and you might notice an inconspicuous sign that says "video and audio systems in use."
A lot of riders are not happy about it.
"Yeah I don't like that," says Michael Dolan of Bayonne, N.J. "I don't want conversations being picked up because it's too Orwellian for me. It reeks of Big Brother."
New Jersey's public transit system is just the latest to add audio and video surveillance on some of its trains. Other agencies have been quietly recording their passengers for years, but critics say that's an invasion of privacy.
Security cameras are fine, but audio recordings cross the line
"Private conversation should be private between you and the individual that you're speaking to," says NJ Transit rider Neeley Banks of Bayonne. But like a lot of commuters, Banks says she's OK with security cameras on the trains.
"Because if it's security for us on this train, that wouldn't bother me," she says.
NJ Transit insists that security and safety are exactly why it's installing audio and video recorders on light rail trains around the state. But officials at the agency do not want to talk specifics.
"We're using every available technology to deter criminal activity on our system," said Dennis Martin, NJ Transit's acting executive director, while fending off questions from reporters after a board meeting this week.
For a lot of people, audio recording seems like crossing a line.
"It is creepy that they want to record our conversations," says Jeanne LoCicero, a lawyer with the ACLU of New Jersey. "We all have a reasonable expectation that we can have private conversations in public and this really is undermining that principle."
Most of the time, no one listens
To law enforcement, audio surveillance can be a useful tool. The Maryland Transit Administration has been recording audio and video on many of its buses in the Baltimore area since 2012.
"The idea that people are listening in, Big Brother if you will, is very far from the truth," says Capt. Christopher Holland of the MTA police. "The common misperception is that everything is being listened to. It's not only impractical, it's impossible."
The cameras and microphones are recording whenever the buses are running, Holland says. Most of the time, no one listens to the recordings, and they get erased after 30 days — unless there's a robbery, fight or other incident.
Holland says audio recordings can potentially reveal information the video doesn't, including the names or nicknames of people involved in the incident.
It's not clear how many other transit agencies are doing this. But the answer seems to be a lot. The cost of surveillance systems can run into the millions of dollars, which is often covered by the Department of Homeland Security. There are several companies that specialize in building surveillance equipment for transit agencies.
Apollo Video Technology is one such company. CEO Rodell Notbohm says his company alone has supplied equipment for about 200 agencies. And all those systems have microphones.
"Typically it's not gonna hear a conversation between two people that are sitting next to one other," says Notbohm. "The idea is to be able to capture the interaction between passengers and the operator. And then any big altercation or noises that are going on in the vehicle."
Hard to know how recordings are used
It's hard to say how many transit systems are actually recording audio. Some only do it when the driver pushes a button, while others never do. That can make it hard for passengers to know exactly where they stand.
"Often there's a lack of policies and procedures that are available to the public so they understand what's going on," says Jeramie Scott with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "How the information's being used, how it's being stored, how long it's being retained, who it's being shared with."
New Jersey Transit, for example, is unwilling to answer any of those basic questions. That may help explain why riders are so worried about what Big Brother might overhear.