Robin Wilton

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Robin Wilton
Research Director
26 years IT industry

Robin Wilton is a research director with a particular interest in digital identity and privacy (and their relationship to public policy), access control and single sign-on, and the productive use of public key infrastructures. Read Full Bio

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UK Councils in two minds over CCTV in taxis

by Robin Wilton  |  December 2, 2011  |  Comments Off

Taxi cabs in Oxford may still have to apply for the rather archaically-named Hackney Carriage Licence, but Oxford City Council reckons it is keeping up with the times: it has decided to require all taxi-drivers in the city to install CCTV in their cabs, as a condition of receiving their licence. The cameras, which must capture both audio and video, will run permanently and must store data for 28 days in case police decide they would like retrospective access to the recording.

Privacy advocates are, not surprisingly, questioning the impact of such a move: Big Brother Watch said it showed “total disregard for civil liberties”.

Oxford City Council has, presumably, done a risk assessment of this proposal (after all, a council spokesperson is quoted as saying “The risk of intrusion into private conversations has to be balanced against the interests of public safety, both of passengers and drivers.” It would be fascinating to see the details of that risk assessment.

Interestingly, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Code of Practice on CCTV happens to make explicit mention of the use of audio recording in taxi cabs. It prefaces its comment with a clear warning on audio capture (my emphasis):

“CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public as this is highly intrusive and unlikely to be justified. You should choose a system without this facility if possible. If your system comes equipped with a sound recording facility then you should turn this off or disable it in some other way.”

It goes on to say:

“There are limited circumstances in which audio recording may be justified, subject to sufficient safeguards. These could include:

[...]

  • Where recording is triggered due to a specific threat, e.g. a ‘panic button’ in a taxi cab.”

In the limited circumstances where audio recording is justified, signs must make it very clear that audio recording is being or may be carried out.”

That looks to me as though it rules out the option of a permanent audio recording.

The CCTV Code of Practice is itself subsidiary to the Data Protection Act, which includes the following over-arching principle:

“3. Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed.”

It’s going to be very tricky for Oxford City Council to prove compliance with the Proportionality Principle, because another council (Monmouthshire) has come to precisely the opposite conclusion about whether taxi drivers should record what goes on in their cabs.

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