Given that privacy is one of my professional subjects, it is interesting that my home city, Oxford, should be blazing a trail in trampling on privacy rights, with a compulsory scheme requiring taxis to make video and sound recordings of their passengers – the BBC story is here.
One of the expressed reasons for this is the protection of taxi drivers themselves, despite the fact that most of the taxi drivers are opposed to the scheme – not least, one supposes, because the cost of installing the equipment amounts to yet another tax on living imposed on businesses by pen-pushers who are themselves immune from commercial pressures. There are exceptions, of course, but English local authorities are generally staffed with low-grade troglodytes whose ability to comprehend anything falls far short of complex concepts like privacy, and who have gathered power in recent years far outstripping their abilities or intellectual capacities. Again, there are exceptions, even in Oxford, but the councillors who notionally lead such authorities tend to be very small people with delusions of their own importance.
Oxford is a breeding-ground for political and bureaucratic meddling as well as the home of the Clarendon Building, the Bodleian, the Emperors and the Sheldonian (Photo by Chris Dale)
The word “Regulation” in the title of Labour’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 somehow implies greater control over those who exercise powers of investigation. In fact, the act authorised even little drones from local authorities to make use of covert surveillance, and many of them set to with a will for what were often, according to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, “petty and vindictive” cases. Even Labour became concerned at the extent to which the paper-shufflers abused their powers, and new rules imposed some restrictions and authorisation procedures.
The compulsory use of CCTV in taxis represents a slightly different strand – Big Brother’s Little Helper may now have to ask his line manager before going through your dustbins, but remains free to impose his care and concern for your welfare, whether you like it or not. This is part of the stifling interference in every aspect of life which was so characteristic of the Labour years and which the coalition government has failed to cut back despite its promises – a drawback, perhaps, of having to appease the Liberal Democrats, whose solicitous care about us over-rides our expectations from both parts of their name – there is little which is either liberal or democratic about them, but I guess that “Redistributive, Anti-Business, Pro-European Control-Freaks” would not make a good campaigning label.
Oxford is in fact ripe territory for this kind of interference. With one short intermission, it has been ruled by Labour for over two decades and was one of only two local authorities where Labour actually increased its majority in the council elections coinciding with “Bile” Brown’s ejection from office. There are a lot of Lib Dems here in Oxford, brighter and nicer than the Labour members but, as I have said, suffused with that paternalistic notion that they know better than we do what is good for us. There are some Greens, not all stupid by any means, but with that curious combination of mushy thought and totalitarian instinct which, fortunately, hampers their growth as a political force. That grouping of political parties ensured that few voices were raised against the idea of spying on passengers in taxis.
It is thought that other local authorities are watching the Oxford experiment with interest. Like so many unwarranted extensions of power, this one includes a hidden tax since much of the cost falls on the taxi owners. Oxford will perhaps raise parking charges or withdraw a service to fund the marginal cost (they can’t close the public lavatories because they have already done that), and they will doubtless be able to offer a job to some otherwise unemployable person to monitor the recordings. One pictures a pallid and sweaty man panting over a girl’s call to her boyfriend or passing to social services a tired mother’s cross words to her child.
The worst aspect of this is the modest amount of resistance aroused by the proposal: the taxi drivers complain, but have apparently baulked at going on strike; various organisations dedicated to the protection of freedom have protested, but they are well used by now to being ignored in the face of the growing tide of infringements on our liberty.
Most of us are similarly resigned, and conduct our lives on the assumption that our every activity is monitored by some state minion. Our consolation is that government, in all its forms, is unbelievably incompetent at managing all the information it gathers – Oxford’s police, for example, have been strangely silent on the benefits of the expensive CCTV which they fought to install in some of Oxford’s rougher shopping streets. The time to get frightened is when the pen-pushers marry their desire to control us with the analytical tools used by marketeers and advertising companies. That, fortunately, costs money which cannot be funded by closing any number of care homes, youth centres or libraries. It also requires rather more intelligence, in the human sense, than is generally to be found in a local authority office.
If you want a glimpse of where this leads, recall the recent story of an East Asian country (I forget which) where the cab drivers have been recruited to report passenger conversations which imply tax evasion. That in turn is a short step from the East Germany of Erich Honecker, where everyone was a spy on his neighbours. Such parallels and implications will be lost on the “officers” of Oxford City Council as they start recording our private conversations in taxis.