As the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking opened in London, Oxford city council was launching its own attack on individual privacy. The council has announced its plans to fit Oxford’s 662 taxis with microphones and CCTV cameras, as a condition of their licensing agreements. Not terribly long ago I was a student and enthusiastic taxi user in Oxford. I am appalled at the thought of conversations I had in them being recorded, not because their content was especially shocking or incriminating but because I viewed them as private.
The official explanation is that this equipment will improve public safety by recording all the violent crime and fare dodging, which the council would have us believe is rife (funnily enough, the relevant crime figures were not available when the Oxford Mail requested them, although drivers claimed to have seen them). This seems unlikely. What they will be recording are the revelations, tears, arguments and passion that punctuate university life. Who hasn’t kissed in a taxi? No one wants to hear that.
As much as the council insists the recordings will only be accessed in relation to a “specific crime or licensing issue” (the limited circumstances provided for in the government regulations), their very existence makes them susceptible to being heard. This leaves taxi riders in an uncomfortably vulnerable position.
Second to their directness, one of the main advantages of taxis over public transport is inherent to that very comparison – they are not public. This is part of the reason why they can charge so much. The back of a taxi is necessarily a confined space, which forces its passengers into close proximity. The natural effect of this is to inspire intimacy and encourage the exchange of confidences. I am not alone in holding that view. Indeed, one of the most compelling pieces I read about the Arab spring recounted the open and frank discussions on Egypt’s uprisings that could be held in the back of an Iranian taxi. The speakers recall Iran’s revolution and express their views freely, without fear of reprisal. For them, the taxi was a sacrosanct.
Whatever protestations Oxford city council may make to the contrary, it is clear that there is an assumption of relative privacy in a taxi. This is obvious from the conversations that are held there, notably those delayed until the door clicks shut. I noticed this particularly during some legal work-experience. With the partition closed and the radio turned up, most lawyers seemed happy to discuss cases in a manner that would be unimaginable on public transport. I appreciated having this time to ask questions and discuss the issues raised in a rare unhurried setting. This would be impossible if we knew our conversation was being recorded.
When we get into a taxi at the end of an evening, we instinctively relax in the knowledge that we will be home soon. The taxi forms a psychological bridge between being “out” and “home”. It may seem like a trifling point, but this is an attractive feature of civilised living. These measures would increase the length of time before you could lower your guard, and create unnecessary unease.
This move represents an unacceptable invasion of that privacy, and the stated aims simply do not justify the means. The microphones would switch on automatically when the key was turned in the ignition andrecord for 30 minutes thereafter. There would be no discretion in this process. These sinister measures make suspects of paying customers. We have come to associate (properly licensed) taxis with safety and comfort. They are intimate spaces where we can tell the secrets we dare not reveal elsewhere. To shroud this harmless custom in disproportionate surveillance would be unforgiveable.
Originally published on Comment is Free on 15 November 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/15/cab-travel-privacy-oxford