Legal review: Police to introduce surveillance equipment inside Oxford taxis to listen in to conversations

By 2015 Taxis in Oxford are to have CCTV cameras installed in order to record the conversations of passengers, which will then be reviewed by police officers . What implications! The taxis will be forced to display notices warning of the surveillance equipment . An outcry over privacy and civil liberty is inevitable . Steve Kuncewicz, Intellectual Property & Media solicitor for Gateley LLP, discusses the issue.

Apart from the fact that the majority of passengers using a taxi wouldn’t usually want their conversations (especially at certain times of the day) recorded for any reason, it's not particularly surprising that civil liberties groups are up in arms at Oxford City Council's proposals. What's clear is that they have given some careful thought as to whether or not this kind of surveillance is legal, if not desirable or popular.

CCTV usage is heavily regulated and recording a conversation over a telephone or in person touches on a number of legal issues, not least the Data Protection Act 1998. Recording a conversation between passengers. drivers and anyone else in the cab involves the capture and processing of personal data, which is regulated by the 1998 Act and which must take place in line with a set of clear principles as well as with the consent of whoever is being recorded.

Consent can be implied from the circumstances (such as playing a recording to a caller telling them that their conversation with a business may be recorded for monitoring or other purposes and relying on the fact that they stayed on the line), but to be safe it's always far less risky for a business to be able to show that they obtained adequate consent from whoever is being recorded. That may be difficult in the circumstances, especially if the person being recorded is a minor. There are some very limited exceptions to the 1998 Act, but it's always safer to assume that it applies to surveillance like this then to assume that it doesn’t and be faced by the consequences, which can potentially include a fine of up to £500,000.

The way in which Oxford City Council are looking to get around this issue is to have clearly-displayed notices in cabs which notify passengers that they are being recorded. Whether or not this will hold up in practice is open to question, but it at least shows that they've thought about the issues carefully. What also helps them is the apparent reason for making the recordings - the whole point of this exercise is the apparent rise in serious assaults between passengers and against drivers.The Council plan to only use the recordings in relation to specific complaints. Doing so in the interests of public safety is far more defensible than, for example, using them for marketing or "quality control purposes.."

Even then, however, the recordings and the information they contain must be held for the minimum amount of time possible (in this case, they'll be deleted after 28 days) under very secure conditions and used in a "proportionate" manner. Apparently, only images relating to a specific investigation will be able to be viewed by an investigator. That's all well and good, but this does raise issues of "who watches the watchmen" and Oxford City Council may find itself on the receiving end of a huge number of subject access requests from passengers asking for details of the personal information which the Council holds on them, which may extend far past the cab journey in question.

Even if they may find this acceptable and justifiable from the point of view of an intrusion into privacy Oxford City Council may live to regret this move and end up causing themselves far more trouble than they could potentially avert by having the cameras running in the first place. It's hard to see how the Information Commissioner can agree that this kind of recording is justifiable without a full investigation given how obviously intrusive they are. To be honest, I'd imagine that there are far better uses for public money right now than this kind of surveillance or in defending the flood of claims that may be a result of its implementation.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.