Is your Labour council spying on you?

In yet another worrying privacy development Oxford (Labour controlled) and Southampton (Labour controlled) councils have been ordered by the Information Commissioner to stop spying on taxi cab customers. As unbelievable as it may sound these councils have required their badged taxi drivers to record CCTV of all customers and audio of their entire conversations. All the time. All without any notices or asking consent.

They say this is required for the safety of their drivers. I can understand – perhaps – CCTV being activated when a driver has a leary set of drunken lads, but I have trouble finding a justification for ‘always on’ cameras, and especially audio recordings. Surely the best person to determine whether a recording needs to happen is the taxi driver. If they feel threatened they could turn on the recording devices. This top down approach makes no sense.

Perhaps more worryingly was the attempted justification by Cllr Jacqui Rayment (Labour), Southampton City Council’s deputy leader. She says:

“We are disappointed with this decision, as it is 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. We are currently taking legal advice on the next steps to take, including appeal.” (my emphasis)

Aside from the point that they don’t think their taxi drivers can be trusted, the ‘kept very securely’ point to me is the most worrying. I wonder where it is kept. If its kept on the taxi then the driver may be able to destroy the data if they have been recorded doing something they shouldn’t. A powerful magnet is enough to erase a hard drive. This would look just like a corrupt drive so they’d get away scot free. Also it means they’re kept in cars overnight in an insecure environment. All encryption can be bypassed, its just a matter of time. Also, who holds the decryption keys? If its not kept in the taxis and is instead kept centrally, then what is stopping council workers from reviewing all the material? Being encrypted is no benefit here as presumably the councils themselves have the decryption keys so they can investigate alleged wrongdoing.

What is particularly staggering is that they managed to get this system up and running in the first place. Surely someone, somewhere, realised they don’t have the legal authority to snoop on everyone without a court order and without any suspicion of an offence having already happened. They need this, for example, if they hire someone to video you filling your recycle bin with normal rubbish – and yes, councils do routinely do this in the UK.

There have been lots of talking heads discussing the ‘Snoopers Bill’ going through Parliament that would give GCHQ broader interception powers. Personally I’d prefer a central, professional body having these powers rather than thousands of councillors and council workers who have no oversight body watching them. GCHQ at least have the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in Parliament to watch over it.

If you walk down a busy high street you expect some CCTV to keep people safe. In such a situation you are one of thousands of shoppers going about their business. Your movements aren’t individually tracked, and your private conversation remain private. Nobody expects their entire taxi journeys or conversations to be recorded and kept under lock and key by a council. Neither do they expect to be followed by an unregulated private investigator walking in their PJs to put something in the bin in the morning. Someone needs to stop this.

Unfortunately the Information Commissioner’s powers are severely limited. I would like to see him have subpoena powers, run public evidence sessions (like Parliamentary committees) and be able to hand out unlimited fines for data breaches. I would also like a separate Joint Committee of Parliament to oversee and investigate the impact of local councils’ powers under DPA and RIPA. Maybe then councillors would think twice before routinely agreeing to invade their constituents’ privacy.



About adamfowleruk
Sales Engineer and Author

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