Taxis’ internal surveillance cameras create stir over privacy

Chunichi Shimbun

Taxi companies are installing video systems in their vehicles to reduce passenger conflicts in a move that is raising privacy concerns because of vague warnings that are leaving many unaware they are being recorded.

Last November, a drunken passenger exited a Fuji Taxi without paying after attacking the driver in Ama, Aichi Prefecture. A small camera stuck to the windshield recorded the whole incident, leading to his arrest by Aichi Prefectural Police on suspicion of robbery. The footage was subsequently submitted as evidence without the man’s knowledge.

The Fuji Taxi Group is a major cab operator based in Naka Ward, Nagoya. The incident took place right after the cameras were installed, at a cost of ¥50,000 per car, and all of the 540 cabs have one. This was done to reportedly to protect the drivers after an incident two years before in which a driver was robbed and seriously injured.

The camera records around the clock but it will only be played if “necessary.” Only the head and other managers at Fuji branches who have access to the password are allowed to view the videos, which are automatically erased after 30 hours have passed.

The videos have been used in about 30 cases in the past six months to clear false complaints.

“We can provide evidence, so there is no need for us to bear silently with the complaints anymore,” said Hisashi Umemura, a Fuji Taxi director.

The taxi recordings also played a part in the investigation of a recent hit-and-run involving a minivan that struck 18 pedestrians in Kyoto’s Gion district. The footage showed the vehicle whiz.

Fuji Taxi also put up signs in the cabs that read: “Security camera operating.” But the sign does not explain clearly that passengers are being filmed and their voices are being recorded.

Tsubame Taxi, based in Naka Ward, began installing similar cameras this spring, but the company didn’t bother to inform the customers out of fear that “they will feel uneasy and it may lead to complaints,” an official said.

Meanwhile, Meitetsu Co. and Nagoya Kintetsu Taxi have decided only to film the exteriors of their vehicles to help take measures against traffic accidents, saying they refrained from using internal camera in order to not violate passenger privacy.

Katsuya Ichihashi, a professor at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Law, said taxi companies should clearly tell passengers they are being filmed and recorded, and the circumstances under which those videos could be used.

He also said the firms should draft clear guidelines on how they decide to submit videos as evidence for police investigations.

As of March 2011, the ratio of taxis with interior surveillance cameras was 11 percent in Aichi Prefecture, 57 percent in Tokyo and 60 percent in Osaka, according to the federation of hire-taxi associations for anticrime cooperation.

“Aichi lags behind Tokyo and Osaka because people in Aichi are more conservative and take the value its citizens place on privacy more seriously,” said an official at the Nagoya taxi association. “But I believe it will spread further in Aichi as well.”

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 21.