Concern Over Audio Surveillance on NJ Transit Light Rail

By Erin Delmore

“It’s down right un-American and has no place in this state,” David Peter Alan, Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, strongly stated.

New Jersey Transit had nothing to say to light rail commuters angry that the agency is recording everything they say.

“Our private conversations are not New Jersey Transit’s business,” said Alan.

New video and audio recorders are making their way onto light rail cars in the name of security. NJ Transit began installing them last year as a deterrent to theft. It’s not wholly unprecedented: PATH trains are equipped with on-board cameras, though NJ Transit train cars are not. But it’s the audio — constantly recorded, even at conversational levels — that has some concerned.

“This is happening in, essentially, complete secret. In other words, NJ Transit has not told us what their policies are, what their retention policies are, who gets to see this information, who gets to listen to the conversations of a million riders a day,” said American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas.

“Video captures acts, it captures movement, it captures overt acts that people do, audio captures our expressions. Our expressions, at least in theory, are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” Alan said.

Alan raised the issue during Tuesday’s board meeting. The agency didn’t acknowledge it or field questions on it from reporters. Interim Executive Director Dennis Martin said afterwards in a statement: “We have seen too many instances of terrorism at mass transit facilities around the world, with the latest in Brussels. It is our responsibility and our duty to utilize today’s current technology to deter the criminal activity, while also being mindful of law abiding citizens’ right to privacy.”

NJ Transit police statistics analyzed by NJ Advance Media showed 130 instances of reported crime on the light rail last year, up just a bit from 123 instances the year before.

“I think it’s better like that, either way, still people can get hurt or whatever, but it’s more protective because you can see who did it,” said Newark resident Irene Arteta.

“Especially the reality in this moment right now, the terrorists, everything that’s happening, I think that we have to prevent that,” said Newark resident Goao Santos.

“I think video recording is necessary to monitor. Audio is not required I think,” said NJIT Student Purnananda Gaddam.

“If I’m yelling across a crowded train car, I don’t expect there to be privacy. But let’s say I get a phone call from my doctor, from a wife or husband, from a child. And I go to look for an area of the train that doesn’t have any other riders so that I can speak in private. I don’t expect the government to be listening in on that,” Barocas said.

A sampling of light rail passengers in Newark Penn Station showed a lot of support for the amped up surveillance measures. Then again, people concerned with privacy don’t tend to stop for television interviews.