Our investigation on video and audio surveillance on buses and trolleys started with the process of peeling back layers. One question lead to another and then another.
We published my investigation into security problems along the San Diego rails in February 2013, and that left me wondering how transportation agencies pay for their security programs. After a few calls, I learned about the Transit Security Grant Program, or TSGP, which is a federal grant administered by the Department of Homeland Security to “owners and operators of transit systems” for protecting against terrorism. While it’s not the only grant available for such measures, it is a major one.
More than $23 million was doled out to California transit agencies in 2013.
To find out how that grant breaks down, I submitted California Public Records Act requests for specific amounts collected by the local Metropolitan Transit System, the North County Transit District and a few other transportation agencies in Southern California. What stood out was the amount of money being spent on bus surveillance systems: $2.47 million spent by MTS; $5 million by the Orange County Transportation Authority; $2 million for “CCTV” (Closed Circuit Television) by NCTD.
For context, I researched online and found that in some areas of the country, privacy advocates and riders were protesting on-board surveillance systems. It didn’t sound like video was the issue — it was the microphones that were causing the ruckus. It seemed people didn’t like the government listening to their conversations on the bus or train. This was especially the case in the East, in cities like Baltimore.
I then called the Orange County and Los Angeles transportation agencies to ask about their audio-gathering. Both agencies spent a lot of money on video but said microphones were minimal to nonexistent on-board trains and buses. Interviews with MTS told me the local transit agency was different. They had microphones on almost every bus and trolley. The audio could be paired with video footage.
What did it feel like to be recorded on your ride to work? KPBS videographer Nic McVicker teamed up with me to find out.
We spent half a day riding MTS buses and trolleys gathering footage and talking to passengers. Some riders became visibly annoyed that we were taping and even reported us to the driver. It was ironic because they already were constantly being recorded by the 10 cameras on the bus.
To get the full effect, I submitted another California Public Records Act request to MTS for the video and audio footage from the buses and trolleys we rode. What came back was CCTV tape of McVicker and me riding the downtown loop, interviewing passengers.
We published this video (converting it first into GIF format) with the story published on the inewsource website. McVicker also used the footage in the five-minute package he created for KPBS TV. A shorter version of the story was shown on 10News. We’ve reloaded some of the video here. (We’re the ones with the camera, tripod and big microphone.)
We finished out the reporting by interviewing both the executive director of the San Diego ACLU and the MTS chief of police. We also arranged a tour of the MTS CCTV central monitoring location in exchange for not disclosing the location.
MTS Director of Marketing and Communications, Rob Schupp, was the point of contact for inewsource throughout this whole process. For the most part, he was helpful and responsive, although he balked at releasing information about how long the agency retained video and audio footage. Schupp later agreed to release the information.
He also denied a request from inewsource data analyst Joe Yerardi for the agency’s “shapefiles” of bus routes, asking instead that I call him personally to work it out. (Shapefiles are computer files used to create online maps, and most government agencies that oversee public land keep them on-hand.) We wanted the files to create an interactive map of San Diego bus routes to show the extent of surveillance within the city.
We obtained the files from SANDAG, which it clearly considered public records.
In the course of reporting this story, I’ve come up with many more questions about how we’re all being watched, our movements recorded and our information stored.
We'll let you know when big things happen.