Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Big Brother is coming to Oxford. 

Big Brother is spreading fast around Britain and I am not talking about that dreadful Channel 4 television programme. Big Brother is the growing monitoring of our daily lives by CCTV. These cameras and their digital recorders are sprouting up everywhere. Nowhere is safe from this encroachment into our privacy.

The coach I drive every day is fitted with 8 CCTV cameras that record my every move. My coach has 48 passenger seats, so that is a lot of images caught every day. Then there is the forward, rear and nearside video images that record all the coach movements. I am talking about a lot of images that are automatically grabbed. These images are routinely monitored by our line managers, even though the shorter one has to stand on the seats to remove the hard drive from the recorder!

Now these CCTV recorders are to be installed in taxis in Oxford. Plans to fit all taxis operating in the city of Oxford with audio recording devices have been branded a “staggering invasion of privacy” prompting calls for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate how widespread the use of microphones on public transport has become.

Taxi drivers in the university town have been told that they need to install the £460 devices by 2015 or face having their licenses revoked. The microphones, accompanied by CCTV cameras, will activate once the ignition in the car is turned on and will remain recording for 30 minutes after the engine is turned off.

But privacy campaigners say the plans represent a significant “ramping up” of surveillance culture in Britain and may well be in breach of Government guidelines. “This is a staggering invasion of privacy being done with no evidence, no consultation and a total disregard for civil liberties,” said Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch. “To my knowledge this is the first time a council has brought in audio recording equipment like this in taxis.”

Two Oxford bus companies, however, already use audio recording on some of their routes. The Oxford Bus Company confirmed that some of its newer CCTV cameras have their microphones turned one in the driver’s compartment whilst Stagecoach said it was trialling microphones on its “Oxford Tube” service to London. Philip Kirk, the Managing Director of Oxford Bus Company said: “All our buses are fitted with CCTV and many of them also record sound at the entrance. In general we have found that CCTV works well to protect our passengers and our drivers.”

The exact extent of microphone use on public transport is not known. But one official involved in the sale of CCTV told the Independent: “It’s not unusual. Many of the newer devices have audio record options. Most of the time it is used to record conversations between, say, a bus driver and the passenger at the point of entry. It’s unusual for private conversations to be recorded.”
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