inewsource investigation: MTS buses, trolleys under surveillance

SAN DIEGO - Big Brother is watching, and now he's also listening on San Diego buses and trolleys.

10News partner inewsource examined what's happening and uncovered new developments on surveillance around San Diego County.

"What we're doing is recording all of this information 24/7 …," said Bill Burke, chief of police for San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System.

In August, Burke agreed to show inewsource the agency's surveillance network center, though he asked inewsource not disclose the exact location.

His operation draws from more than 7,000 cameras located onboard trolleys and throughout the agency's fleet of buses, and live camera feeds come in from the 30 MTS transit stations scattered throughout the county.

"But here's the thing: aside from recording video … the agency is also listening," Burke said.

There are small signs the size of greeting cards onboard the buses and trolleys telling passengers they are being recorded, but the news about audio recording came as a surprise to almost all the passengers inewsource interviewed.

"Did you know, ever, that you were being recorded?" asked inewsource reporter Brad Racino.

Passenger Aunti Adija replied, "Never"

Yuki, a college student from Japan, told Racino, "Oh, I didn't notice that before."

Passenger Erik Skoblar said, "The video camera yes, the audio, no; I had no idea about that."

Cameras on public transit systems aren't a new development, but microphones are. The issue sparked a legal battle in Baltimore earlier this year between the city's transportation agency and privacy advocates. Burke said here in San Diego, there's nothing to worry about..

"If you and I are sitting on a bus having a conversation, we're not going to hear that. Usually what happens is -- if it's a crime or an incident, people become boisterous and it's more likely you're going to hear the conversation," said Burke.

The local ACLU was unaware of the scope of the MTS operation until inewsource told them. The agency's executive director, Kevin Keenan, said technology like this is worrisome.

"If you look at any one surveillance program by itself, 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 … you start to see a picture of a society that is much different than any of us imagined or want to be in. And yet we're getting there," said Keenan.

In the wake of the NSA revelations, we've learned that all manner of surveillance data -- from facial recognition devices to license plate readers and phones -- can be warehoused, analyzed, cross-referenced and flagged with little-to-no human involvement.

MTS' onboard cameras and microphones are not monitored like the station cameras -- but the footage and audio is stored for a period of up to several weeks in case an incident needs to be reviewed or turned over to the police.

MTS says the technology has helped lead to people charged with crimes such as sexual assault. The agency also believes it helps prevents crimes, too.

The ACLU believes there should be a policy on what kind of information can be collected and when it should be destroyed.

See exactly where MTS is recording on an interactive map created by 10News' partners at inewsource here, and the full story, here.

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