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The recorder on the bus rolls on and on: Privacy advocates oppose MATBUS audio, video surveillance

FARGO – A note to anyone riding the bus here: What you say and do is being recorded.

Like many public transit systems around the country, MATBUS has equipped its buses with audio and video recorders that are constantly rolling.

This is likely news to some riders, but the technology isn't new to local buses. Fargo buses have been gathering audio and video since 1997, and those in Moorhead have done so since 2007, said Lori Van Beek, a manager for MATBUS, the transit system that serves both cities.

Transportation officials say the recordings can help solve crimes, sort out complaints against bus drivers and determine who's at fault in a crash. Meanwhile, privacy advocates say such surveillance, especially the collection of audio, is overly intrusive.

"When you're recording audio, you may capture very intimate conversations, particularly when people don't realize they're being recorded," said Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. "That conversation can be captured and stored and used and shared completely without the person's knowledge."

Van Beek says she has not fielded any complaints about this issue, and she points out that there's a sign on every bus notifying riders of the audio and video surveillance.

"You're on a public bus," she said. "People can hear you that are sitting around you."

That argument does not sit well with Jennifer Cook, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota. She believes it's an oversimplification of the law to say that people lose their expectation of privacy when they're talking on a bus.

"Just because your conversation takes place in public does not necessarily make it constitutional for the government to listen in on it," Cook said, noting that bus recordings are at risk of being abused by the government or anyone who obtains such a recording through a public records request.

'Someone's being rude'

Last week, Sahar Amedy was quietly texting on her phone as she rode a bus to the Moorhead Center Mall.

The 22-year-old, a regular MATBUS commuter, said she wasn't aware that she was under audio and video surveillance. But considering that it's public transportation, she didn't feel as though her privacy was being invaded.

"I guess I don't really talk that much," Amedy said. "I can see why they have audio in case, like, someone's being rude."

Van Beek said newer buses have two exterior and six interior video cameras, as well as two audio recorders, one by the driver and another in the middle of the bus.

She said the audio recorders do not pick up conversations unless someone is talking loudly or is underneath one of the two recorders. She said she was recently reviewing video from the back of a bus and the accompanying audio did not catch anything that was said.

"We're not watching video unless there's a complaint or an issue. We don't have time for that, and so it's not like we're all just listening in to conversations," she said.

Given that the audio recorders do not detect normal conversations, Scott questioned why MATBUS uses them at all. "They should eliminate the audio recording then because not only is it a violation of privacy, it apparently serves no useful purpose," he said.

Police investigations

Van Beek said audio gathered by the recorder near the driver's seat has been helpful when investigating a passenger's claim that a driver said something impolite.

Teamsters Local 120 represents MATBUS drivers, and union rep Brian Nowak said recordings have exonerated drivers after passengers made false accusations. "They're not necessarily a bad thing," he said of the recordings.

Due to storage limitations, bus recordings are retained for about a week, though recordings of incidents under investigation are saved longer, Van Beek said.

Fargo and Moorhead police officials said video from buses has been useful in many investigations, often cases of vandalism or minor assaults.

In December 2014, a man armed with a sawed-off shotgun rode a bus to the Hornbacher's grocery store at Main Avenue and 11th Street South in Moorhead, where he robbed a bank branch inside the store. Surveillance images from the bus helped police develop a description of the robber, said Lt. Tory Jacobson of the Moorhead Police Department.

However, police could not cite a time when audio from a bus aided an investigation, but they recognized the potential of such a recording. "That could be of evidentiary value," Jacobson said.

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