In April this year, a 16-minute video was leaked to the public by local newspaper Apple Daily capturing the intimate moments between two Hong Kong celebrities, Andy Hui and Jacqueline Wong, inside a vehicle. In the wake of it, a city-wide debate has been sparked about the ethics and regulation of dashboard cameras installed by taxi drivers and the collection of private data without the passenger’s knowledge.
Since the Association of Taxi Industry Development introduced the CCTV Taxi Scheme in September 2016 to regulate the behaviour of taxi drivers, there are now up to 40 taxis in the city that have installed cameras with stickers alerting passengers to the presence of the device. However, it has since been reported that approximately 8,000 out of the 18,000 Hong Kong taxis have installed recording devices of their own initiative, which essentially delegitimises the scheme and calls into question whether potential privacy breaches outweigh the need to regulate the behaviour of a minority of taxi drivers.
Barrister-at-law Allan Chiang thinks drivers that have done so have potentially breached Hong Kong privacy laws. Though according to Chiang, taxi cabins are defined in the court of law as a ‘semi-private space’. “Our current laws are not specific enough,” says Chiang, “[and] authorities have not proactively said what should or should not be done.”
Subsequently, the lack of a concrete legal definition on whether taxi dashboard cameras are a fair collection creates a vacuum in local privacy laws. “Our privacy laws do not protect the passenger,” claims legislative councillor Charles Mok, adding that the gap in the legislation allows a 45 percent chance for taxi passengers to be recorded through video or audio unbeknownst to them.
This bears the question as to why no one is regulating such behaviour. “The problem
is that the transport department is unable to enforce it,” argues Mok. “Who is going to be the one to regulate every taxi if we can’t even ensure that all their cabins to be clean or hospitable?” The difficulty of regulation also stems from a divided public opinion. Many believe that taxi drivers have the right to protect themselves through the installation of cameras even though it puts the privacy of the passengers at risk. “There is still a significant group of people who argue for such devices to prevent arguments and to help the passenger or driver to prove their point,” says Mok.
So is there essentially no protection of privacy inside a taxi cabin? For Mok, the answer is yes. “The term semi-private space doesn’t mean anything,” says Mok. “It is a way for the privacy commissioner to say that nothing can be done.” Passengers can only rely on themselves and should treat all taxi cabins as public places. Mok states: ”You cannot rely on the taxi driver or whoever has access to the taxi footage to act with integrity.” It’s more important than ever for the privacy commissioner and legislation reforms to establish whether the data collection in question is fair in relation to its objective. This is the first step in potentially controlling the dangers of hidden dashboard cameras. By Elaine Lok