Big Brother is watching – and listening – in Oxford

Be careful what you say if you decide to take a taxi or the bus in Oxford – every word will be recorded.

Despite being in clear breach of the guidance issued by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) and a gross invasion of privacy, Oxford Council has decided to make it a condition for all licensed black cabs in the city to record both audio and video.

The audio will be available to council officers and the police, and will cover any time the taxi’s engine is running and the 30 minutes after the engine has been switched off.

The Oxford Times has the story, which also uncovered that audio recording is curently in use on Oxford Bus Company buses and Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube bus. As the Oxford and Chiltern bus page notes, Oxford Buses carry a logo on the front stating that CCTV is in operation – not audio recording.

While claiming the scheme is essential to tackle incidentsof assaults on drivers, the Council was unable to provide any figures to the paper and the police said it would take upto a month to compile them. Oxford Bus Company do publish their Conditions of Carriage online – but they do not include any reference to CCTV or audio recording.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has a code of practice for the use of CCTV and it’s clear on the issue of audio recording.

“CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public as this is highly
intrusive and unlikely to be justified. You should choose a system without this facility if possible.
If your system comes equipped with a sound recording facility then you should turn this off or
disable it in some other way.”

However, the Council has taken a rather different approach. Oxford City Council’s Taxi Licensing Pack states that (Page 9) the equipment must be:

4. Capable of providing voice recording
5. The recording must be event activated (e.g. door or ignition) and continue to record 30 minutes after the ignition is switched off.

This is a staggering invasion of privacy, being done with no evidence, no consultation and a total disregard for civil liberties. Big Brother now has big ears, and they are eavesdropping on your conversations with absolutely no justification.

It remains to be seen if the Council even has the legal authority to do this.

Big Brother Watch has complained to the ICO about this policy, and has written to the two Oxford MPs to ask them to join us in opposing the scheme.If you live in Oxford, travel in a recording taxi or use one of these buses, why not check to see if the CCTV notice even tells you that your conversations are being recorded?

Worse still, the Council’s documents do not even mention when recordings should be erased. All they state is that the equipment should be “capable of recording and storing images for a minimum of 28 days.”

Given that one rail route to Witney is through Oxford, we’ll be letting the Prime Minister know that his staff might want to avoid using Oxford cabs.


This has generated a great deal of interest, so Big Brother Watch has been digging. And we’ve found no document that suggests Oxford City Council’s licensing committee has ever approved this. Two reports have been published – one, for the 19 October meeting, outlines the planned changes to licensing conditions. Earlier in the year, a meeting on March 1 heard the initial proposal. Both documents discuss CCTV, and make no mention of audio recording. There is one missing document – the Appendix A discussed on 19 October, which outlines the actual changes planned. That isn’t available on the Council’s website however. We have asked the Officer responsible for a copy.

Update 2:

We’ve now been given the Council’s Appendix. It makes no mention of audio recording, only CCTV and “image retrieval”.

Did Councillors on the committee even discuss this?



  1. Jame Baker
    14th November 2011

    How long are the recordings kept for?

    • Adrian
      14th November 2011

      also are the recordings marked with some sort if identity, if they wanted to (ab)use the recordings? I wouldn’t be surprised if people stared wearing either ski masks, or those ‘anonymous’ masks when entering taxis now, also are politicians exempt from this system?

  2. Dennis Smith
    14th November 2011

    I personally have no problem with this provided it is CLEARLY marked on the inner doors and glass. If you have noting to say that is a secret then you have no issue. It should also be clear who has access to the recordings and how long the recordings are kept for. If you enter a huge number of shops you will find that the record audio too, but unfortunately they don’t tell you this as you walk in.

    • aztec13
      14th November 2011

      People like you with those views of “I have nothing to hide – so it’s OK” are part of the problem. If you want to live in a “Police State” bugger off to the USA.

      • Dennis Smith
        14th November 2011

        I’ll follow you in, after all you don’t like people expressing there opinions so your the first candidate.

        So where do YOU draw the line? You clearly have no objection to using the internet, no doubt you read the newspapers so you don’t mind funding a whole industry founded on this type of behaviour. And you call the USA a police state, but unaware the problems they have a worse here and we taught the american’s how to become that way.

        If you don’t want someone to hear you then don’t say it. If you don’t want your actions to be seen then don’t do it, or do it at home, if it’s legal or moral to do. Unless your doing wrong, then no one gives a damn what your doing, no one is so special that they have any reason to hide from something that will be forgotten in a short space of time.

        I’ve seen both sides of the camera, I can tell you that it’s a non-issue, if you only knew how much work is involved in following a single criminal or known offender you will know that you don’t have the time to follow innocent people and forget reviewing for non-offenders, there is never the time and believe me it’s a boring task. The only time anyone will ever look at footage will be if there is a valid reason to do so. Having said this, there isn’t nearly enough camera coverage here.

        • Bruno
          14th November 2011

          Pop your address up here so we can all see it. Surely with the attitude you have you will have no problem with that

        • Peterloo
          17th November 2011

          Damn it man, are you really so naive  that you dont understand that the problem is not the overhearing or overseeing its the random and uncontextual  way in which this data is collected and used?

          Like the foolish chap who expressed his frustration on Twitter by ‘threatening’ the blow up Nottingham airport.  The authorities were ‘convinced’ that he was serious – really, a terrorist was going to Twitter his intentions?  He ended up with a criminal record.

          Or the woman who was facing a multi-thousand £ fine for driving offenses committed by someone who had cloned her number plates.  She even provided evidence that she was at the other end of the country when they were committed but the authorities could only believe what the traffic cameras showed them.

          I could be sitting on the bus chatting to a friend about a game or a book idea or some other innocent pastime but if I mention ‘planting a bomb’ or ‘committing a murder’ or ‘assassinating the prime minister’ then I could find myself the subject of an investigation and I expect, a subsequent trail by media followed by a kangaroo court hearing.

          To combat threats to the state you need focussed investigative efforts, concentrating on credible evidence that can be contextualised and assessed accordingly – not thousands of random ‘hits’ that only waste time and resource.

          And you can bet your bottom dollar that the data gained from this invasive surveilance will find its way into the private sector, probably for a price, and used for marketing or market research – just left on a laptop.

          Quite simply this is a power-grab by the local council at the expense of liberty and freedom.

          As Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying:

          “Those willing to give up liberty for security deserve niether and will lose both”

    • Tom Chiverton
      14th November 2011

      It’s not about having a secret to share or not, it’s about it not being any of anyone ones business. Or don’t you have curtains at home ?

    • Peterloo
      14th November 2011

      Dennis, why dont you drop me an email telling me where you live and you can post me a set of your house keys too.

      I can then pop round any time I like to have a quick nose around and see what you are up to (if you are around when I visit).

      Dont worry though, you have nothing to hide.

  3. Helen Wilkinson
    14th November 2011

    It may be worth writing to Steve Baker MP as the Oxford Tube comes through Wycombe and picks up at Lewknor Junction 6 which is also yards from David Lidington’s patch on the Bucks borders. just the other side of Wycombe. Also there a coach park plan for Wycombe at Junction 4 of the M40 so Oxord coaches will be stopping there. Its Helen from The Big Opt Out shout if you need any info on actual boundaries its where I live so know them well!!.

  4. Stormgolden
    14th November 2011

    Wear a burka and play music if you wish to speak. It is a Big Brother society, it must be defeated at ALL COSTS

  5. anon
    14th November 2011

    This is totally outrageous. Why is the government and the ICO not preventing such intrusions into our privacy? Freedom is no longer available to us in this country.

  6. Anonymous
    14th November 2011

    The only reason why any of this is possible is because the Council is an agent of the State that does not work directly for the people in each constituency on a voluntary basis.

    BBW can post these stories until the end of time, and it will change nothing, because they refuse to go to the root of the problem; the State.

    The State should not be licensing taxies, or cars or drivers. Period. It should not have the power to tax people by force so that it can provide its ‘services’.

    Unless you accept this, it is utterly pointless to keep complaining about the ‘Big Brother State’.

    The state does not exist to give up power, it exists to accumulate it. The State itself must be replaced with a 100% voluntary system where no one is compelled by force to pay for anything they do not want to pay for. This is called a Libertarian society. If you do not accept this premise, the ‘Non Agression Principle’, that no one has the right to initiate force upon anyone else, all arguments against CCTV, the ‘Big Brother State’ and all your other complaints are nothing more than hollow noise.

    This is a philosophical problem first and foremost. You must understand the proper role of government and the true nature of man and ethics before you can come to a correct solution to these problems. Big Brother Watch consistently fails to do this, and so its pointless to keep coming here to read the stories of the ever encroaching State, because BBW wants the State to exist and to control people, just to a lesser extent than it does now. This position is inherently immoral and unjustifiable.

  7. Recording the voice of passengers on public transport and in taxis has to be an illegal breach of personal privacy « Kevin Townsend
    14th November 2011

    […] The audio will be available to council officers and the police, and will cover any time the taxi’s engine is running and the 30 minutes after the engine has been switched off. Big Brother is watching – and listening – in Oxford […]

  8. Philip Blair
    15th November 2011

    I have a mixed opinion on this issue. I am all for CCTV, especially on public transport. I do though share the writers concerns about the voice recordings. But as someone who works in the public transport sector, I have lost count of he number of times that I (and the police, solicitors and on more than one occasion magistrates) have wished that our CCTV systems were capable of audio recordings. To hear the abuse, obscenities, threats of physical violence and even numerous death threats.
    But even given those incidents, I an still not convinced of this particular program. I am concerned that my private conversations being listened to by some poorly paid council worker, who baby been properly and who has little if any knowledge of the council’s own CCTV policy, never mind knowing anything about the Data Protection Act.
    Where I do lose any sympathy or empathy with the writer is when they utter those most despised words; infringement of civil liberty’s, what about the victims daily abuse from members of the public and what about their right to work and to do so without the fear of abuse, verbally or physical, I don’t hear to many bleeding hearts standing up for these victims. Ambulance crews, Fire & Rescue personnel. Police, Traffic Gardens, Nurses, railways and bud company employees, the lust could go on. People who are their to help and assist as is appropriate for the nature of their situation. That is why I struggle with this issue. I would want to be confident in the ability of the operators and also confident of their discretion as well and of course their professionalism and their training. It is however important that the public are made fully aware that not only is CCTV in operation, but that their conversations are also being recorded and that those recordings may be used as evidence should the need arise.

  9. Taxi Driver
    15th November 2011

    BBW has blown this out of proportion big style. I respect everyone’s right to freedom within this country, but as a Taxi driver where is my right to protection from abusive drunks on a Saturday night when im trying to earn a living for my family?

    These CCTV systems are not accessible to the drivers and can only be accessed by either the Police, or a council official in response to any allegation of a crime be it against the driver or a passenger. Every year there are hundreds of assaults against drivers which goes unnoticed in the public eye, that is the reason Taxis are having cameras installed and the only reason.

    Just my 2p worth, but trust me the recordings are solely for driver/passenger protection!

    • Vampa
      22nd November 2011

      I understand the purpose of CCTV – but why record the conversations?!

  10. Ibrahim Hasan
    15th November 2011

    Very interesting and concerning. However I do not think as the law stands the council is acting illegally per se. The Data Protection does not say CCTV cannot be installed. As in all cases where personal data is processed, it requires rules to be followed (8 principles). The main one requires the data to be processed fairly and lawfully. Without other specific laws which say it cannot be done and as long as drivers and passengers are told what is happening (with appropriate signs) I think they may be able to do it. However what happens if a driver refuses to have the camera installed? Will it be a condition of issuing a taxi license? If so is this condition lawful within taxi licensing regulations etc?

  11. anon
    15th November 2011

    Whilst I sympathise with Taxi Driver and the very real problems of possible violence and abuse we also need to consider where this could lead.  For example, under the guise of preventing possible abuse, will they then record everything that is said during (what is supposed to be confidential) appointments with doctors or other medical staff in hospitals and GP surgeries?  Will they record everything that is said in trains, planes, pubs, clubs, shops, in the street (which according to an earlier piece from BBW is already beginning to happen), and anywhere else that we may go to or pass through?

    Is there ever a case for treating every individual in our society as a criminal in order to catch the relative few who commit criminal acts?  Is there any evidence to say that treating us all in this way will lead to a better society with less crime?  Is there any evidence that all of this spying (sorry they call it monitoring) prevents crime?  It certainly did not appear to during the riots.

    The press are being rightly investigated for all the surveillance and phone hacking etc that should never have happened.  Do we really want this covert surveillance to become the norm?

    No one should have to put up with the abuse and violence that Taxi Driver refers to but recording everything we say and do will not stop it.  

    • Taxi Driver
      17th November 2011

      The recordings would be held on a secure encrypted hard drive within the vehicle, the audio/visuals NOT available to the driver. They would be held for 28 days after which they are automatically deleted. They are only accessed by police or council in event of say an assault or allegation made against the driver. They would then only look at the event in question.

      Plastered all over the news yesterday (15/11) was a story that disappeared as quick as it appeared, a taxi driver stabbed in the neck in Manchester. Police have no description at all of the assailant. If they had CCTV installed they would have his mugshot.

      This story has been going on for sometime. Drivers were against it due to the council refusing to help with the cost of installation (£500+).

      A lot of buses already record images/audio on every part of the bus and TfL have had the system running for quiet sometime yet I’ve not heard of one instance of audio being “leaked”

  12. John Name
    16th November 2011

    Whenever I find myself within reach of a device recording sight or sound of me, I always make it my business to apply masking tape.

  13. north face denali
    17th November 2011

    Very useful article for me, there is more information I have is very important. Thank you! I’m glad you could get out of it to share with us.

  14. Olwen
    18th November 2011

    The recordings MAY be for driver/passenger protection-at the moment. And whoopee- I’ve got nothing to hide, so why would I worry? And in 5, or 8, or 10 years time, when we have all got used to being watched & listened to every moment we’re out and about? When somebody in authority decides that being critical of the government is dangerously anti-social? Or that your favourite joke is socially unacceptable? Or that perhaps recordings should be extended to homes, to make sure, for instance, that you are not smoking in the house when there are kids around? (And if you think that’s extreme, just imagine how people would have reacted 25 years ago to the suggestion that it could be made illegal to smoke when alone in your own car.)
    Remember returning from a trip to the USSR in 1975, and being so proud to be back in a country that valued freedom almost to the point of insanity. It HAS to be guarded- we’ve already lost too much.

  15. Stephaniedewar
    18th November 2011

    Why is it that it’s normal, decent people who bear the brunt of our undisciplined feral youth? Why don’t we just put all young unemployed/not in education into national service and get them off the streets.
    Then there would be no excuses for this sort of intrusion into the private lives of adults.

  16. Alex Fate
    18th November 2011

    All things are connected… This was first trialed in China at the Beijing Olympics. Now we’re publicly using the same techniques (after most people have had time to forget)…  “Every Taxi in Beijing Bugged With GPS-Tagging Microphone For Instant Surveillance” – Of course that’s alot of expense too… it would be a shame to remove the equipment after the Olympics wouldn’t it?
    ie – A good way for the powers that be to add even more surveillance into society, using the Olympics as a smokescreen/motivation (backed up with by exploiting peoples fear over safety) to impliment more CCTV then justify keeping it through econimics… As we slide even further into BigBrother… Oh Well Orwell. A.

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  18. Anthony
    18th November 2011

    George Orwell was SO right… Big Brother really is everywhere these days in the U.K.  It cannot be legal for Oxford “authorities” to force cab operators to have recording equipment installed in their vehicles. No justification of any substance has been presented for this lunacy by the profligate spenders of public funds in Oxford, no doubt because there is none to provide. Where will they spend hundreds of thousands more on surveillance of the innocent… pubs, nightclubs, restaurants ? The potential for more waste and intrusion is unlimited, and frightening for the majority, and the so-called safeguards against abuse of recorded sound and pictures are worthless, as it only takes one careless or dishonest person who has access to the data to blow it wide open to abuse.

  19. Esta Semana (2011/46) – A máscara das “democracias” ocidentais vai caindo « O Vigia
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  23. VoiceOfReason
    28th September 2012

    Let’s be honest, no one is really interested in watching back a video of you unless you did something wrong.
    With a population of over 60million, very few people in the country will even know you exist, let alone care, so no one is going to spend every hour of their life watching back millions of hours looking specifically for you (I know the ego of some people will find that hard to take, but that really is the reality)
    Dont get me wrong, abuse of privacy is definately something which should be faught against, but thinking people thinking someone will spend hours of their life watching a video back about you for no reason is just daft.
    I’ve got absolutely no problem with CCTV in cabs, etc – you get in, have your trip, get out and go about your life. The driver is hardly likely to loose out on picking up the next fair (and ultimately paying his/her rent/mortgage) in favour of watching back a video of you.

  24. UK Councils in two minds over CCTV in taxis - Robin Wilton
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