Very personal data could be collected by CCTV systems in Hong Kong taxis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 9:44pm

The recent announcement by the taxi trade that they will install CCTV systems with audio recording in 2,000 taxis is worrying.

In a crowded city like Hong Kong where private space is scarce, we are used to treating taxi cabins as semi-private space where we talk freely with fellow passengers and make business transactions or engage in private conversations over the phone. It seems this luxury will disappear in the name of improving taxi service.

Video-taping and audio-recording hundreds of thousands of taxi riders per day is tantamount to massive collection of very private and personal data. Who can guarantee the data collected will not be compromised and misused? Why should consumers bear the attendant privacy risks?

The threat of unauthorised and accidental access is real. Foolproof systems to safeguard data do not exist. Not infrequently do we hear horror stories of data breaches from organisations, including global IT giants.

The sanctions against such irregularities are light. Further, as data breach notification is not mandatory under the law, organisations may choose to cover up, keeping consumers in the dark. Do consumers really support sacrificing their privacy to assist in the improvement of taxi services?

There must be alternative and more cost-effective means of achieving this objective. As a service economy, we should pride ourselves on providing service from the heart, instead of adopting a system whereby service behaviour is regulated by machines.

We have witnessed stern oversight by the legislature over public surveillance. I hope we will not adopt a laissez-faire approach when it comes to private surveillance. Most people would appreciate the need for the police to switch on their audio-video recording systems in confrontational scenarios or incidents where a breach of the peace had occurred or is likely to occur. The need to collect evidence is primal in law enforcement. But the application of the same system merely for improving service is clearly inappropriate and disproportionate.

My fear is that if we tolerate this application, we could be opening a floodgate for legitimising other surveillance programmes on the pretext of service improvement or dispute avoidance.

We are promoting Hong Kong as a hospitable city and a free society.

Our taxi drivers would have a hard time explaining to the international traveller whether Hong Kong is transforming into a mass surveillance city. I guess they would also be embarrassed when asked why their service has to be closely monitored.

Allan Chiang, former privacy commissioner for personal data