Southampton City Council ordered to stop recording taxi conversations

The Information Commissioner’s Office has ordered Southampton City Council to bring an end to the mandatory recording of passenger and driver conversations in the city’s taxis.

Under a policy launched in August 2009, the council currently requires CCTV equipment to be installed in all taxis and private hire vehicles and for that equipment to record visual and audio data non-stop.

The ICO has given Southampton an “enforcement notice” that grants the city until 1 November to halt the practice, following the watchdog agency’s finding that the policy violates the Data Protection Act. According to the legislation, which was passed in 1998, organisations may only collect personal data under “fair and lawful” circumstances.

But the Southampton City Council has overstepped its mandate, the ICO has found.

“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,” Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said in a statement.

“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, noting that the recording of conversations could be mandated in appropriate situations, such as to capture the fallout of a “specific threat.”

A plan to enact a similar policy by the Oxford City Council was curbed in May after concerned activists, taxi drivers, and MPs raised awareness about the scheme’s privacy implications.

Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties advocacy group that campaigned against both the Oxford and Southampton councils’ policies, has warned that CCTV regulation will continue to be an important issue on the privacy and personal freedom front.

“[A]s the technology becomes cheaper, smaller and more powerful,” so will its implications grow, the group has said.

For its part, the Southampton City Council insists the measure is for the public’s benefit.

”We are disappointed with this decision as this scheme was always about safety for both the drivers and passengers. Data is encrypted, kept very securely and only downloaded if there is a specific complaint against a driver or if the police request access in order to investigate an alleged offence,” the council’s deputy leader Jacqui Rayment said in a statement.

“We are currently taking legal advice on the next steps to take, including appeal,” Rayment added.