Blanket taxi audio-recording policy outlawed

Posted: 5th March 2013

ICCTVn a decision of national significance, a local authority has failed in its appeal against an enforcement notice issued by the Information Commissioner requiring it to scrap its policy to make taxi drivers record every word said by their passengers.

The first-tier tribunal agreed with the Commissioner that the policy breached the Data Protection Act 1998 and amounted to a disproportionate interference with the human right of passengers to respect for their privacy.

Southampton City Council had since August 2009 required all its 700-800 licensed hackney carriage and private hire vehicle drivers to have closed circuit television with audio-recording equipment installed in their vehicles. The Commissioner did not object to the requirement of video recording of passengers but forbade continuous audio-recording of conversations.

Dismissing the council’s appeal, the tribunal noted that there was no dispute that the audio recordings comprised ‘personal data’ within the meaning of the act and took judicial notice of the fact that passengers would, from time to time, discuss their own and others’ sex lives, health, politics, religious beliefs and other private matters.

The tribunal observed that the council’s policy meant that “in short, every single conversation, however private and however sensitive the subject matter, taking place during every single taxi ride in Southampton, of which there will be a million-a-year, will be recorded and accessible to a public authority”.

The tribunal ruled: "The council's policy, in so far as it requires continuous blanket audio-recording of everything said in taxis, is disproportionate when the extent of the interference with the right to privacy is weighed against the marginal benefits to the legitimate social aims of increasing public safety and reducing crime in relation to taxis which are likely to result from it.

"Having reached that conclusion we wish to record that we were impressed by the police evidence in this case and that we appreciate the nature of the problem and the special vulnerability of some taxi passengers, in particular children, those with disabilities and those travelling at night, especially when they are 'the worse for wear' as is so often the case.

"It may be that, bearing these points in mind, there is scope for a more targeted scheme involving audio-recording based on times of day, types of customer (for example, children or vulnerable adults carried under contract between a taxi firm and the council), the use of panic buttons or a combination thereof, which strikes a better balance between the competing considerations and does not contravene the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts. Any such scheme would be a matter for the parties to work out and not for this Tribunal to put forward."