ACLU-NJ seeks actual recordings and policies to understand NJ Transit’s audio and visual surveillance of light rail passengers

NEWARK - Concerned about the intrusion into New Jerseyans’ privacy, the ACLU of New Jersey today filed an Open Public Records Act request (PDF) with NJ Transit seeking information about audio and video surveillance of passengers on its three light rail lines that came to light in April. The ACLU-NJ also requested copies of actual recordings of New Jerseyans’ conversations captured by NJ Transit.

“This kind of surveillance is chilling on so many levels – it’s chilling to know that NJ Transit is listening to us without sharing any details, and it chills free speech to know these microphones are always on,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “This kind of intimate surveillance changes the character of our public spaces, and it creates a kind of society that doesn’t reflect who we are as Americans.”

NJ Transit has not shared information with the public about the surveillance. The public does not know whether the audio and video footage are recorded continuously, who has access to the footage, how the recordings are stored, and how long they are maintained.

The ACLU-NJ has requested, among other records:

  • Three discrete, two-hour periods of recordings, one from each light rail line, to understand what the audio can tell us about the surveillance the agency is gathering
  • Policies governing the equipment’s use, management of data, access to footage, and how long it’s maintained
  • Information about the amount of recording that has taken place
  • Invoices about the recording equipment and documentation about its capabilities

“You don’t find a needle by building a much bigger haystack, and that’s what NJ Transit is doing here,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “The public has a right to know how we’re being recorded and how those recordings are being used. With microphones that can pick up even private conversations, that’s an invasion of our privacy on the order of Big Brother. Only it’s not fiction, and it’s happening right now.”

Microphones and video cameras have been installed in trains serving the River Line, which connects Camden and Trenton, and the Newark Line. NJ Transit is finishing installation of the recording equipment on the Hudson-Bergen Line, which runs from Bayonne to North Bergen. Altogether, these light rail lines serve approximately 72,000 riders per weekday.

The posted signs read, “Notice – video and audio systems in use – this vehicle is equipped with onboard video and audio recording systems,” giving passengers no indication of how the equipment is recording them and how the recordings are used.

“Especially if NJ Transit truly believes its surveillance serves the interests of the public, the agency owes the public basic information about how it records riders and what it does with that footage,” said ACLU-NJ Transparency Law Fellow Iris Bromberg. “It’s bad enough to violate riders’ privacy, but even worse when it’s being done with this level of secrecy.”

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