The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has taken enforcement action to prevent Southampton City Council recording conversations within the city's taxis. Since August 2009, Southampton City Council had implemented a policy which made it mandatory for all private hire vehicles within the city to install CCTV equipment to record all conversations and images of both drivers and passengers within the vehicles. This policy had been introduced by Southampton City Council in an effort to protect the safety of both passengers and drivers within the city.
However, having carried out an investigation into the practice, the ICO has ruled that the level of surveillance carried out by Southampton City Council was disproportionate to the danger posed to drivers and passengers. The ICO has therefore issued an Enforcement Notice on Southampton City Council, requiring the Council to erase any existing audio recordings in its possession, and to refrain from making any further audio recordings in taxis in the future.
In its press release, the ICO reiterated that under the Data Protection Act, organisations are only permitted to collect personal data from individuals provided that it is fair and lawful to do so. The use of audio recordings is only likely to be justified if there are a large number of incidents and where the recordings are made only in relation to specific taxis which are subject to the threat of further incidents.
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, made the following statement about the case:
"By requiring taxi operators to record all conversations and images while the vehicles are in use, Southampton City Council have [sic] gone too far. 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… we hope this action sends a clear message to local authorities that they must properly consider all the legal obligations on them before requiring the installation of CCTV or similar equipment and that audio recording should be very much the exception, rather than the rule."
The implementation of CCTV within taxis is something which has been carried out by a number of other local authorities within the UK. Local authorities that have implemented similar policies should review the justification for such surveillance (in particular audio surveillance) and ensure that the scope of the surveillance is justified in light of the relevant threat. A blanket requirement for taxis to record conversations is unlikely to be justifiable