Southampton City Council must stop ordering taxi drivers to video and record their passengers' conversations, the UK's privacy watchdog has ordered.
Since 2009, taxis in Southampton have had to constantly record all journeys using CCTV and audio equipment, a mandatory requirement by local authorities. On Wednesday, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) published an enforcement notice telling Southampton City Council to put a halt to the practice by 1 November.
"By requiring taxi operators to record all conversations and images while the vehicles are in use, Southampton City Council have gone too far," information commissioner Christopher Graham said in a statement.
"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," he added.
The council's policy was a breach of the Data Protection Act, the ICO said, noting that recording all conversations was out of proportion to the "very low" amount of trouble seen by taxi drivers.
It is also important to stop the recording because many drivers use their vehicles outside work, according to Graham.
"By requiring taxi operators to record all conversations and images while the vehicles are in use, Southampton City Council have gone too far" — Christopher Graham, ICO
Southampton covers an area of 51.81 square kilometres, with a population of about 239,700. While it could not give figures on how many people had been recorded in Southampton taxis over the three-year period, it did say a sizeable proportion could have been affected. In 2009 Southampton City Council said the CCTV would be rolled out to 800 cabs. A city spokesman told ZDNet that not all of those 800 taxis had been fitted with CCTV.
"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," Graham said.
Southampton City Council has not said whether it will appeal or comply with the notice.
The ICO recently stopped Oxford City Council from implementing a similar taxi surveillance policy, it said on Wednesday.