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Nick Pickles: Far too many surveillance powers are exercised beyond scrutiny and without accountability

NP-WEBNick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Follow him on Twitter here

Oxford Council’s decision to force black cabs in the city to record the audio and video of every passenger’s journey has been condemned by Big Brother Watch as a staggering invasion of privacy. The city’s Oxford Mail newspaper has joined us, arguing the council has made the wrong decision, and the policy has attracted media attention across the world.

Despite the national code of practice on CCTV, published by the Information Commissioners office, stating CCTV should in no circumstances record audio, Oxford City Council has taken the decision that recording every conversation is a proportional response to the problems faced by drivers and passengers.

Whatever your views on CCTV, the recording of audio is an entirely new development in public surveillance and one which I would argue is a gross invasion of privacy, and entirely disproportionate.

Big Brother Watch has complained to the Information Commissioner about this policy, and we eagerly await his response. However, he has no legal power to reverse the council’s decision.

The main legal route available to those affected is to take the case to court, or to hope that Big Brother Watch’s campaign forces the council to abandon the policy.

We’re going to keep up the pressure on the council, but once again this case highlights the need for a real debate about the regulation of surveillance in the UK. The Information Commissioner lacks the power of penalties to meaningfully enforce existing law, while secrecy about what technology is being used prevents any meaningful critique of policy.

While the Protection of Freedoms Bill does improve the controls on who can watch CCTV, it does not stop the growth of new surveillance – whether that be council-mandated recording of your conversations in taxis or the Met Police’s use of equipment that captures every conversation, text and data packet of any mobile phone in a 10km radius.

Far too many of these powers are exercised beyond scrutiny and without accountability. While groups like Big Brother Watch exist to highlight them and campaign in defence of our privacy,  it is surely time our Government took seriously the need to control the growth of surveillance.

As technology advances, so will the temptation to use it for purposes unforeseen by those drafting legislation. Oxford is the latest front in the battle to protect our privacy, and I hope readers will join with us to make a stand and defend our civil liberties. 


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