Are you being watched? Taxi video footage triggers privacy concerns

An Uber driver leaking a video of two celebrities in the back seat has sparked debate on whether this is a breach of privacy law and if cameras are necessary on taxis and private hire vehicles.

Last week, local news outlet Apple Daily released a 16-minute video of Sammi Cheng’s husband Andy Hui kissing actress Jacqueline Wong in the back seat of an Uber taxi. The release of the footage raises concerns over on-board cameras installed by drivers.

In the know

Mr. Allan Chiang Yam-wang, former privacy commissioner and barrister, warns that the driver and the news outlet could have breached Hong Kong’s privacy law.

He says a driver needs to inform the passengers of the camera in the vehicle before they decide to get inside. He also questions if the driver has lawful grounds to collect the personal data, and if the collection of personal data is fair to the parties.

“If the video allows other people to easily identify the filmed parties’ identities, the driver runs a higher risk of breaching the privacy law,” says Mr. Chiang.

Mr. Chiang is urging the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data to investigate whether the purpose of these taxis collecting personal data is fair. He also notes that installing cameras in the vehicle, which is defined as a semi-private place, is not an acceptable approach.

Further, he warns that if all Hong Kong drivers install on-board cameras, Hong Kong could become “a city of surveillance”.

“If cameras are to be installed in all the vehicles, what about other public places such as schools and trading venues?” he asks.

But Mr. Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, supports such cameras being installed in taxis and private hire vehicles to prevent crime.

Currently, the Transport Department’s guideline stipulates that the installation of on-board cameras is voluntary. Local group the Association of Taxi Industry Development estimates that over 8,000 taxis in Hong Kong have installed cameras currently.

Fong says the guideline is not up-to-date and he is calling for regulations.

“All the vehicles licensed with the Transport Department must be regulated, then we need to see whether these footages must be encrypted and whether sound recording is needed,” he says.

Another way: encryption

In the UK, CCTV systems in taxis and private hire vehicles must be encrypted and the footage can only be accessed by the authorities if a crime is reported.

Mr. Jeremy Tam Man-ho, Civic Party lawmaker and member of the Committee on Taxi Service Quality, has called for proper security measures to stop taxi drivers from accessing the personal data of their passengers.

“I have proposed that the memory stick could be installed into the taxi’s meter or officially encrypted so the content is only accessible to law enforcement agencies,” he says.

Mr. Hung Wing-tat, chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi Council, shares the same view. He is urging the government to regulate the use of cameras inside taxis and penalize drivers who misuse them.

“The industry agrees that the footage can only be handled by the government bodies. But we are still discussing details such as where to put the camera, whether sound recording is necessary, how long the footage should be, and so forth,” he says.