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Eavesdropping on the Commute

It was 2015 and New Jersey Transit was in panic. Passengers on their light rail line had been hit by rash of phone robberies throughout the previous year. It was a crime wave that needed an equally serious solution. With the generous help of the Department of Homeland Security, NJT was able to install millions of dollars of CCTV equipment on their trains ensuring the good people of New Jersey would be safe under the watchful eye of transit police.

Or at least that's how Transit would like the story to run.

In reality, in a couple dozen of the millions of annual trips on New Jersey Transit someone had their phone stolen. The official numbers are 28 robberies reported on light rail for all of 2014 with 29 arrests made (123 total crimes system wide in 2014). Authorities responded to this "epidemic" in the only way a security first mindset could, completing a $1.9 million Homeland Security grant (nearly $70,000 per robbery) to install video and audio surveillance devices on NJ Transit vehicles (a program that had been slowly rolling out since 2011, but was vastly accelerated by this crime-prevention push and accompanying anti-terrorism DHS grant).

As the system roll out continues today it has come to light that the surveillance continuously records both video and audio capturing and storing what many riders thought were private conversations. Authorities claim the audio is to cut down on crime, prevent terrorism, and potentially distinguish between an action that might look violent but is actually play. Furthermore, the state has declined to answer questions regarding who has access to the recordings, where and how they are stored, and if the recordings are permanent or deleted after a certain amount of time.

It goes with out saying that this is a ridiculous overreaction that amounts to nothing more than security theater. In fiscal year 2015, NJ Transit had over 22.5 million trips and only 128 crimes system wide (it seems impossible to find records on solely light rail crimes). Even if all of those crimes occurred exclusively on light rail, you only have a 0.0005% chance of being the victim of a crime in a single year - or to put it another way, you're 10x more likely to be murdered on your way to the train than be the victim of a crime onboard. The safety of these trains cannot be attributed to the installation of surveillance either since crime has stayed at the same level since deployment (if not risen ever so slightly).

Authorities have floated the idea that audio is in place to fight terrorism and prevent another Brussels (or whatever terrorist attack is last in the news) from occurring. This suggestion, while the standard go to of surveillance proponents, is equally ridiculous. To act as a useful surveillance device, the network would have to either be manually scanned by officers listening for keywords or automatically scanned by software with a realtime or near realtime link to each device. Both options are expensive (well outside the project budget) and of dubious effectiveness, especially when considering how large the "trigger word" database is and how detailed and quick recording and analysis needs to be. The best NJ Transit could hope for is reviewing footage after an event to find out who may have been responsible - but at that point you're long past any usefulness the "fight against terrorism" argument uses.

Most concerning, however, seems to be the total lack of oversight this project has. The amount of data available is massive and could offer unbelievable amounts of information on the passengers of NJ Transit's light rail. Facial analysis easily (and potentially automatically) ties individuals to their spoken word and allows a huge, individualized database to be built. This data could then be abused for blackmail, sold to advertisers, or be leaked (or more likely hacked) and end up on the web for the world to see, use, and abuse.

Thanks to philly.com for reporting this and the New Jersey ACLU for bringing this to light and actively fighting the program.

Photo by Ingolf released under CC BY-NC.