Southampton region is disallowed to record taxi passengers' conversations

Located in the county of Hampshire on the south coast of England, Southampton/Portsmouth is home to over a million UK citizens.  In 2009, the Southampton Council passed an initiative to roll out a massive amount of CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras, claiming that by monitoring citizens, the region could reduce crime.

I. ICO Comes Down Hard on CCTV Recording of Conversations

The plan was particularly shocking on the surface -- after all London deployed CCTV cameras to virtually every street corner in a similar controversial bid.  But the particularly disturbing aspect of the Southampton surveillance was that the region ordered all taxis to install cameras inside that were equipped with audio recording equipment to record all conversations by both passengers and drivers.

England's Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a national privacy regulatory body, just completed its review [PDF] of that controversial practice, and has ordered an end to the recordings, which it says constitute a gross violation of privacy.

Taxi Southampton
Taxis in Southampton were equipped with monitoring equipment that recorded drivers and passengers' every word. [Image Source: Your Meal Ticket UK]

Commissioner Christopher Graham writes, "By requiring taxi operators to record all conversations and images while the vehicles are in use, Southampton City Council have gone too far."

"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."

The city has until November 1 to comply with the order to remove the cameras.

The Oxford City Council, which governs another district in southern England, recently had its plans for a similar scheme shot down by Commissioner Graham and ICO.  That ruling mirrored the Southampton decision, and Oxford has since cancelled its plans to implement the program.

Commissioner Graham writes that he hopes that other city councils across the UK take note and don't stubbornly try to hoist similar proposals.  He writes, "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."

II. Advocates in U.S., UK Argue Citizens Should Sacrifice Freedoms for Safety

ICO has had little tolerance for CCTV systems that record private conversations, including phone calls.  It says such acts constitute violations of the UK's Data Protection Act of 1998.

Britain has long struggled under the spectre of government surveillance.  

Big brother eye
Surveillance advocates argue freedoms may need to be seized in the name of promoting safety, but they remain hopeful citizens will give them up willingly. [Image Source: listal]

Of course studies have disagreed on whether the cameras truly reduce crime.

Some proponents of the monitoring criticize ICO's track record, saying it’s wasting taxpayer money with pro-privacy crackdowns.  However, the amount spent will likely be eclipsed by the savings to local regions of scrapping expensive CCTV systems/plans.

The UK's CCTV system will be under the spotlight at the London Olympics, but fortunately it won't be allowed inside taxicabs, recording visitors' conversations.
In fact it was English author George Orwell who coined the phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in his seminal 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

That said, there are many powerful politicians in England today who argue that "playing Big Brother" is worth it, as a means of stomping out the criminal element.  Like their counterparts in the U.S., they such citizens must sacrifice their freedoms for safety.

Source: ICO [PDF]

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