With millions of federal and state dollars backing them and no opposition in sight, San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) has quietly joined the ranks of a growing number of government transportation agencies around the country that record audio — as well as video — throughout their surveillance systems.
The implications to privacy are many, according to experts, and the $18 million operation is, and always has been, evolving.
The MTS Chief of Police, Bill Burke, has been a key part of the burgeoning system for the past 12 years.
Cameras don’t call in sick, he said. They don’t go on vacation and they’re never unavailable. They’re on duty 24 hours a day, everyday… and those are just the 522 stationary ones.
The mobile cameras and microphones number more than 7,000.
Burke believes patrons shouldn’t expect privacy while out in public. He’s also quick to point out three things: only the stations are monitored on a live feed; bus and trolley footage isn’t viewed unless an incident occurs; and MTS employees aren’t actively listening in on private conversations.
In August, Burke agreed to show inewsource the surveillance hub, located in a nondescript building in downtown San Diego — though he asked we not disclose the exact location.
Inside, uniformed officers watched live footage of bus riders, vagrants, trolley goers, shortcutters and train hoppers as they skirted in and out of view. Thirty transit stations, from the border of Mexico up to Oceanside and Santee, are hard-wired.
Burke was worried.
A story about surveillance — a loaded word, especially these days — could be trouble. After the tour, he and his assistant chief of police stood alone in a conference room waiting for the sit-down portion of the interview with inewsource.
“Are you ready for this?” his assistant chief of police asked.
“Hey, I’ve got my gun,” Burke whispered back.
As soon as those words came out of his mouth, Burke — a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a man with an almost 20-year history as Chief of Police throughout various cities — remembered that the wireless microphone, still attached to his jacket, was still recording.
“I was just joking there, just joking,” he said, clearly and emphatically and on the record.
How it began
In the years following 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security doled out billions of dollars in grants to prevent terrorism. One federal grant in particular was designed for transit operators.
It first arrived at MTS in 2005 and, along with state grants, helped lay the groundwork for what is quickly becoming an $18 million high-definition network. MTS, as a whole, has a $243 million annual operating budget.
“Our cameras, at the beginning, were like a lot of stores had, which were analog,” said Burke, “and analog doesn’t have the ability to give you a really good picture.”
Until recently, the cameras were geared more toward recording an incident rather than identifying people. Case in point: after a shooting at the Chula Vista trolley station in March 2013, one officer involved saw a printout taken from the station’s camera.
“The guys that were shooting at us looked like three or four shadows,” he said.
But now, throughout the agency’s buses, trolleys, and stations, that technology is advancing. MTS finished adding microphones to its buses in 2011 and on its trolleys about 18 months ago. The agency is currently upgrading the system on a rolling basis as more funding becomes available.
The public good
Charles Graham drives the #15 bus from San Diego State University to downtown and back. He plans on retiring soon after 37 years working for MTS. He’s a baseball coach and former player himself who smoked cigarettes during his 10-minute break on Dec. 3., while exchanging small talk with friends who crossed his path.
Graham thinks the surveillance helps a great deal. He was a nonbeliever, at first, but saw himself on tape a while back and was shocked at the clarity. Now, he tells troublemakers everything is being recorded — and the picture is crystal clear.
“Usually they’ll settle down and look at the cameras for the rest of the day,” Graham said.
LR Cabais noticed the cameras long ago. He’s been riding MTS for five years, and was seated near the back of Graham’s bus in December. A seasoned card player who spends time at casino tables, Cabais is no stranger to being recorded.
Yuki — a college student from Japan — was on the same bus and didn’t know he was being recorded, his audio and video picked up by the microphones and high-resolution cameras mounted in 10 locations. He said knowing that made him feel a bit awkward.
Like Yuki, Auntie Adija didn’t know microphones and cameras were recording her. She’s been riding for 15 years. After learning about the surveillance, Adija said, “I know it’s for protecting the citizens.”
The cameras do more than prevent: they help the San Diego Police Department track down criminals, as was the case last year when two riders got off a bus, walked a few blocks and sexually assaulted someone. The video, shared with San Diego police, led to their arrest 10 days later, according to MTS.
Camera evidence can also stop frivolous lawsuits before they get started. Burke cited the case of a drunk who fell off a station platform, devised an elaborate story about how it happened — with MTS to blame — and threatened to sue. The man was shown the video that captured the whole incident.
As a result, there was no lawsuit.
According to MTS Director of Communications Rob Schupp, the audio and video footage helps resolve about 80 percent of the claims MTS processes each year.
But for this preventative network to work effectively, the system must be in place everywhere.
Interactive map: Extent of MTS bus and light-rail service area
How it works
- All 30 MTS stations in San Diego are hardwired with video and
transmit directly to the downtown building where security officers
monitor the feed, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
Calls are relayed to officers on the ground, if need be,
and cameras can be tilted, panned or zoomed.
- The buses are constantly recording video and audio,
and have between eight to 12 cameras, along with microphones,
scattered throughout the interior and exterior of the vehicle.
The footage is downloaded and stored up to several weeks.
It’s reused and recorded over if there is no incident.
According to MTS, the footage isn’t reviewed
unless something happens.
- The trolley records audio and video
near the conductor and just video in the cab.
That footage is also reused.
- MTS works with local police by handing over
footage when requested. MTS saves
footage in its own evidence locker.
- Managers within six distinct operating
divisions have the ability to download video.
Outside police agencies can request footage,
and the whole operation is overseen
by the MTS’ General Counsel.
- Signs on buses, trolleys and at stations
tell passengers their actions are being monitored —
although at least a few buses in November
were missing the notices.
It’s not so much surveillance that bothers the ACLU, but the lack of transparency and oversight inherent in surveillance culture.
But to be clear — it’s also the surveillance.
Kevin Keenan served as the ACLU’s executive director until September. He recently left the organization to become the COO and General Counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in New York. He’s a well-spoken man with a long list of victories under his belt: over the last eight years, he’s fought for immigrant rights and education reform, and against excessive use of force by the Border Patrol and racial profiling. But surveillance is an issue close to his heart.
Keenan and the ACLU knew about the MTS surveillance program, but weren’t aware of its scope until inewsource brought it to his attention.
“If you look at any one surveillance program by itself,” he said in October, “it’s easy to shrug it off and say, ‘Well, that’s technology these days.’”
“But when you look at the totality of these systems,” he continued, “you start to see a picture of a society that is much different than any of us imagined — or want to be in.”
Edward Snowden and the resulting NSA revelations provided proof of what’s possible when multiple modes of surveillance systems are integrated into one. Geolocation, facial recognition, emails, phone calls, license plate readers — all manner of surveillance can now be warehoused, analyzed, cross-referenced and flagged with little-to-no human involvement. A major problem with this inevitable future of big data, according to experts, is that it’s still governed by a Congressional Act from 1986 — back when the internet wasn’t even a thing.
“We are living under a legal regime that is wildly out of date with the times,” said Keenan.
MTS systems, like others across the country, don’t have facial recognition software, and their microphones can barely discern a conversation happening on a loud bus.
But quality changes fast in this field.
“The technology is so rapidly improving,” said Keenan, ”that very soon, if it doesn’t exist already, surveillance audio systems will be able to pick up the most quiet and whispered of comments in a noisy setting.”
This is reportedly already in place in Eugene, Ore., where bus microphones can separate conversations from the sound of wind, engine noise or windshield wipers.
Over the last eight years, the MTS surveillance operation — when compared to other major metropolitan areas — has progressed with almost no pushback. There hasn’t been a single complaint, according to Burke, and its installation and setup required no discussion with the state’s attorney general. Nor was there opposition from state lawmakers like there was in Baltimore in early 2013.
“People tend not to push back,” said Keenan, “because of the cliche that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear.”
What people tend not to notice, he said, is that with this subtle buildup of high-tech networks across the country, the underlying fabric of society is changing at a rapid pace. It’s already possible to integrate surveillance technology in ways “that we wouldn’t ordinarily think of,” Keenan said. Coupling it with voice-recognition software to detect certain words and phrases isn’t out of the question.
“There is no reason to believe,” he said, “that ultimately, or someday soon, that isn’t what would happen to the surveillance of people’s communications on MTS facilities.”
Governor Jerry Brown, back when he was the mayor of Oakland, rejected the idea of increased surveillance throughout his city when it was brought up to a vote in 1999.
“It should also not be forgotten that the intrusive powers of the state are growing with each passing decade,” he said.
MTS Live Camera Locations
A middle ground
Eric Skoblar took his first ride on MTS this October. He usually commutes between La Jolla and Ocean Beach by car, but this time, he wanted to show his young son Grayson what it was like to ride a bus.
Skoblar knew there were cameras on board, but not the microphones. Either way, he said, he has always assumed that in public he’s being monitored by someone or something.
“It’s something I’ve been a lot more aware about having children,” he said, “but it’s the kind of thing that’s bothered me.”
“Who is actually making the determination about what to pull and what to do with that information,” Skoblar asked, “what screenings are they subject to?”
“Who’s watching the people watching?” he asked.
A report written and compiled by the California ACLU affiliates in 2007 found the majority of government agencies with surveillance networks throughout the state lacked any meaningful regulation over those systems. As expected, the report came down hard on the rise in the technology, but it did have one suggestion that leaned toward a middle ground.
“The ACLU recommends that any proposed video surveillance program be subjected to intense public scrutiny, and that the city conduct a full assessment of the system’s effectiveness and impact on privacy and free speech before proceeding with the installation of cameras.”
“To my knowledge,” Keenan at the ACLU said, “MTS doesn’t have policies restricting what types information can be collected, when that needs to be destroyed, limiting who has access to that, making sure that it isn’t being used for inappropriate purposes…”
According to Schupp at MTS, there is no written policy or regulation governing the operation, “…other than video is considered to be included under the same provisions of the Public Records Act,” meanings it’s accessible to the public if requested. There is also a policy “limiting the number of people able to download the video,” Schupp wrote in an email.
Keenan believes there is a way to both please privacy advocates and keep the cameras and microphones operating:
“I would love to see San Diego in general become the leader in the nation,” he said, “for coming up with model policies to get us reasonable control of surveillance and give authorities the information they need to protect themselves and all of us.”
Keenan said he and the ACLU would be happy to work with MTS in creating that policy. Schupp, by email, said “MTS welcomes comments or recommendations from the ACLU or other groups.”
Until then, Burke’s operation is moving ahead, with millions of dollars left to spend from federal and state grants on upgrades.
He smiled when asked if MTS had plans for expanding the operation.
“The only reason I’m smiling,” he said, “is I think you know how technology is.”
“There’s more to come.”
We'll let you know when big things happen.