Big Brother Cab: Oxford taxi CCTV to record all conversations

UK rights activists and privacy campaigners are outraged with “Big Brother staggering invasion of privacy”' as Oxford City Council orders all licensed cabs in the university town to be equipped with CCTV cameras to record both audio and video.

­Oxford City Council has decided to make it a condition for all taxis already operating in the city to install such devices by March 2015.

All new cabs will need the necessary equipment from April 2012.

The recordings will start once the key is turned in the ignition and will remain recording 30 minutes after the engine is turned off.

The council promises the recorded information would not be accessed unless requested by police or council officials.

The local governing body also claims it is done purely for safety reasons – to protect drivers and passengers and to provide evidence in case of fare disputes or possible misconduct. 

“I don’t believe it will be abused.Let’s remember, this is not someone’s front room, this is not someone’s bedroom, this is the back of a taxi with the driver in the front seat, who will be able to overhear any conversation that you’re having with another passenger or someone on the phone,” Colin Cook from Oxford City Council told RT.

But the decision has sparked fierce criticism of privacy campaigners and human rights activists.

Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch has already called it a “staggering invasion of privacy, being done with no evidence, no consultation and a total disregard for civil liberties”, as posted on their website. 

“Oxford Council have claimed there’s a threat which exists that requires it to record not just video but the conversations of every single passenger,” Nick Pickles, a privacy activist from Big Brother Watch explained to RT."We simply don’t accept that the threat is great enough to warrant every single passenger conversation being recorded indiscriminately, rather than for example a panic button system being installed. It treats everyone as potential criminals rather than treating everybody as a law-abiding citizen.”

The group argues it is a “clear breach of the guidance issued by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)” – the UK’s data watchdog. The CCTV code of practice from the ICO says “CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public as this is highly intrusive and unlikely to be justified.” 

Big Brother Watch has complained to the ICO about this policy. And found no document that suggests Oxford City Council’s licensing committee has ever approved of this practice. The two reports obtained by the group discuss CCTV but have no mention of any audio recording.

Meanwhile, two Oxford bus companies already use audio recording on some of their routes. The Oxford Bus Company confirmed that none of its CCTV signs currently alert passengers to the use of audio recording equipment on board their vehicles, as cited by The Independent. .

The Council spokesman Louisa Dean, however, believes that the “risk of intrusion is acceptable compared to the public safety benefits”, according to The Oxford Times.