ICO Orders Council To Stop Spying On Cab Passengers

Today, Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered Southampton Council to stop recording what is going on inside the taxis on the city’s streets.

Since 2009, the Council had required all cabs and private hire vehicles to be fitted with CCTV equipment to constantly monitor both drivers and passengers. The ICO has ruled that this policy breaches the Data Protection Act, and constitutes “processing personal data unfairly and unlawfully”.

The privacy watchdog has taken a particularly harsh stance against recording of conversations, as it is intrusive, but rarely necessary in the event of a crime being committed in the back of a cab.

Listening in

“The policy results in the recording of all driver and passenger conversations (including mobile telephone calls) that take place in taxis and private hire vehicles licensed by Southampton City Council whenever they are in use and regardless of whether the use is personal or private,” outlines the situation the enforcement notice sent to the Council.

The Data Protection Act states that organisations can only collect personal data when it is fair and lawful to do so. For CCTV equipment in taxis, the ICO advises that images should only be recorded where it is clearly justifiable, and conversations shouldn’t be recorded at all.

The watchdog has called the practice “disproportionate”, given the very low number of incidents occurring compared to the number of trouble-free taxi journeys. However, it suggests that the policy could be changed so that audio recording would be triggered in the event of a specific threat.

“By requiring taxi operators to record all conversations and images while the vehicles are in use, Southampton City Council have gone too far,” said information commissioner Christopher Graham.

“We recognise the Council’s desire to ensure the safety of passengers and drivers but this has to be balanced against the degree of privacy that most people would reasonably expect in the back of a taxi cab. It is only right that the privacy of drivers and passengers is respected.”

“This is particularly important as many drivers will use their vehicles outside work,” he added.

The Southampton City Council has until 1 November to comply with the guidelines. The ICO has recently investigated a similar policy that was proposed by Oxford City Council, and also found that it went over the top. Following the report, the programme in Oxford has been suspended.

“We hope this action sends a clear message to local authorities that they must properly consider all the legal obligations on them before requiring the installation of CCTV or similar equipment and that audio recording should be very much the exception, rather than the rule,” concluded Graham.

In January, the ICO warned that it will continue to crack down on those who violate data protection legislation, despite the tough economic climate in which organisations are pushed to cut costs by any means necessary.

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Max Smolaks

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

View Comments

  • What surprises me is why anybody needed to explain to them why this was a bad idea. Are they completely incapable of thinking these plans through before pushing ahead?

    I'm going to assume that they, are exactly like me, intelligent, normal people with normal guidelines to run their lives and normal levels of intellect, why else would they be in the jobs they have? accidental luck?

    So given that they are well adjusted, normal people, why would they they consider it normal to want to record every second of audio and video inside a taxi cab, when the number of incidents / taxi ride ratio is so low??

    Considering I believe no normal person, with normal levels of intellect would believe it's a good idea to do such a thing, it beggers the question, was my analysis of these people correct in the first place.

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