we've all been there. smoking a joint in the back seat. Engaging in heavy alcohol-induced necking with a partner on the way home from a night out.
Come April, however, such bits of abandon will be caught on camera. Cabbies must comply with a city bylaw requiring taxis to be outfitted with emergency lights and either be equipped with cameras or hooked up to a global positioning system that uses satellites in space to track their movements.
The bylaw was passed after the deaths of two cabbies in early 2000 and the ensuing outcry from drivers demanding more safety measures.
Members of the Ontario Taxi Union, which represents about 3,000 of the city's 10,000 cabbies, asked for protective shields.
They're cheaper, effective when it comes to separating cabbies from would-be attackers and, unlike cameras, actually prevent crime. A camera can only be used after the fact.
The city's licensing commission, however, believes protective shields are an eyesore, leave the wrong impression (especially with tourists) and contribute to what councillor Howard Moscoe calls a "fortress mentality."
Little regard, it seems, was given to the potential privacy issues raised by the cameras for both driver and passenger. "None was sought (from the city's legal department), none was offered," says Moscoe.
Nor did city officials inquire into whether evidence gathered by the seeing eyes would be admissible in court should charges be laid. The jury's out on that question in jurisdictions where cameras are being used in the United States.
Here, noted civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby says an argument could be made that the cameras contravene section 7 of the Charter Of Rights, which protects a person's legal rights to "life, liberty and security of the person... in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."
Digital demon or safety device?
The cameras that will be used in Toronto cabs are attached to "black boxes," usually housed underneath the front seat, that are capable of storing several thousand images. The technology can also be expanded to feed the photos as they're being taken in the cab directly to a central storage centre. That's what VerifEye, one of two companies contracted to install the cameras in T.O. cabs, is doing in Australia.
So what's to prevent the stills from ending up on some voyeur Web site, reality TV show or Candid Camera knock-off? Not much. A laptop and the appropriate software is all you need to download the images.
But not to worry, says VerifEye spokesperson Steven Holmes. There will be no control centre where the photos will be stored and only the cops will have access to the software needed to download the images.
If that isn't enough reassurance, Holmes says the cameras operate on a cycle, so that the stills taken are overwritten, usually by day's end. Only stills of passengers who decide to pull a fast one will be saved.
"Statistically, invasion of privacy is less of an issue because the public has an absolute recognition that there's a safety issue, and that drivers have the right to protect themselves," says Holmes.
Sergeant Rob Knapper, a spokesperson for the police department, did not return a call requesting comment. Detective sergeant Brian Ward, the forensic identification unit officer who's in charge of the software that will be used to download cab camera images, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, either.
Are there any assurances that the cops won't avail themselves of the images whenever they want? Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, another member of the licensing commission who pushed for the cameras, acknowledges there are none.
Bruce Robertson, a bureaucrat with municipal licensing and standards, says there's no safeguard against cab companies downloading the pictures and selling them. "There's nothing stopping them, I guess, but if we found out, they'd be run in," he says.
Why not protective shields, then? Minnan-Wong says it's partially a question of comfort. Shields impede the flow of air conditioning and make it difficult for people with disabilities to get in and out of the back seat.
The cops, though, won't be using the stills to catch those who may high-tail it without paying their fare, by far the most common crime committed against cabbies. Under a protocol developed with the city, police will only be downloading stills related to serious crimes like murder, robbery, serious assault or sexual offence.
Then there's the cost. The cameras cost cab owners about $1,200 to install. Those costs will invariably filter down to drivers, who haven't had a fare increase in recent years and face mounting gas prices. In U.S. cities where cameras are mandatory, the cost of the equipment was subsidized. Here in Toronto, the city refused to dip into the $5 million in extra licensing fees charged over the years to help pay for the project. The cash went toward delivering a tax freeze instead.
In New York City, where cab cameras have been in use for a couple of years, killings of cabbies have gone down dramatically after a rash in the late 90s. But some cabbies have taken to rubbing vaseline on the camera lens to blur the images so that their employers can't keep tabs on what they're doing. Those who drive cab to supplement their incomes don't necessarily want the tax man to know.
Here, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has not weighed in on the privacy issues potentially raised by cameras in taxis. Is the back seat of a cab public space, or does it become private once the meter starts running?
Says Donna Lieberman, acting executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU): "It's technically not private, and as a matter of public policy, I don't think we want to get into a situation where Big Brother is in the cab. We have to think about who's behind the camera, who's watching, who gets access. Right now, with surveillance in general, there's a widespread lack of standards and that's a recipe for abuse."
Legal eagle Ruby says it can be argued that evidence caught on the cameras is inadmissable in court. He says decals warning that the cab is outfitted with a camera don't necessarily waive a rider's constitutional rights.
"The liberty and security of the person cannot be interfered with by the state," says Ruby.
Perhaps. But the proliferation of cameras continues. Can cameras in TTC buses, streetcars and subways be far behind?*