Plan to install surveillance cameras in all Hong Kong taxis is a gross invasion of privacy

Charles Mok says passengers are already frustrated with service standards in the competition-averse taxi trade, and constant surveillance would be too high a price to pay for flimsy promises of improvement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 3:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 7:21pm

Cherry-picking passengers, poor navigation skills, wilfully taking longer routes and a rude manner are some of the frustrating experiences with taxis regularly experienced in Hong Kong.

Yet, the sector recently applied to the Legislative Council’s transport panel for a fare hike, claiming higher driver incomes would solve service quality issues. That seems too good to be true.

The restricted number of taxi licences, at some 18,000, has fanned speculation and led to sky-high prices. There is little incentive for better service, and drivers are exploited by both licence owners and taxi companies.

Another round of fare increases will merely maintain the status quo of license holders thwarting competition. This is why I moved a motion at the panel against the fare hike and called on the government to reform licensing arrangements to introduce healthy competition. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by pro-establishment members.

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Car-hailing and ride-sharing services can bring competition to the market but the government has slammed that door shut. The reluctance to review the hire car permit mechanism is, in a way, the protection of vested interests, and the announcement of a “premium taxi scheme” is merely a shoddy version of what people really want.

Meanwhile, instead of addressing the root cause of the complaints, the taxi industry initiated the installation of CCTV surveillance cameras last year with the aim of “improving service quality”, with in-cab cameras and microphones to record the driver and passengers on a 24/7 basis. Recorded material will be saved for a few months, and the police can request to review the videos.

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This is a severe invasion of privacy. How close are we to the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four if we allow such large-scale surveillance?It is almost inevitable that passengers will be identified. Also worrying is that disputes are being blown out of proportion to justify invasive surveillance measures in all taxis.

It is also unclear how the recordings will be used. Will this, in effect, extend surveillance or become the source of prying by law enforcement agencies in the name of “investigation or prevention of crime”? The recent case in which a taxi driver uploaded online a photo of his breastfeeding passenger infuriated many, and justified concerns that CCTV could be used in inappropriate ways. The Privacy Commissioner has clearly stated that collecting passengers’ appearance and conversation is an infringement of privacy.

We need to make it clear that our privacy should not be sacrificed easily. I have launched an online petition to oppose the CCTV installation and protect the privacy of the passengers. See: bit.ly/stoptaxicctv

Charles Mok is a legislative councillor for the IT sector