Big Brother is riding around in Milan’s taxis


MILAN – Big Brother is riding around in Milan’s taxis. Since mid July, 117 of the Lombard capital’s white taxis have been fitted with on-board cameras that can monitor the entire passenger compartment and its occupants. City council funds are paying for half of the cost. “Our aim is to ensure the safety of taxi drivers and their customers”, agree the drivers and the municipal authority.

Nevertheless, the indiscreet gaze of CCTV in public transport has attracted the attention of the privacy watchdog. Cameras have already been fitted to taxis in Florence, and Rome looks to be heading in the same direction, but the initiative in Milan is on a massive scale.

The city council has budgeted one million euros to fund half of the cost, up to a maximum of 1,000 euros per taxi, for drivers who want the reassurance of a third eye in the cab. Security will benefit but it also means passengers may have to control their impulses. There will be no more stolen kisses or compromising phone calls. If you take a taxi, you will have to be on your best behaviour.

“We are procuring the notice that the Milan municipal authority circulated to taxi drivers. We will be examining it carefully and without bias”, said privacy tsar Francesco Pizzetti. In general terms, all taxis need is a window sticker warning customers that video recordings are being made, like the ones in shops where CCTV equipment is installed. But in the case of Milan’s taxi drivers, it may not even be necessary to warn passengers. The sticker has to be visible where cameras are installed to protect an individual taxi driver or shopkeeper but if the aim of public funding is to safeguard the community, the warning can be dispensed with. “It can’t be ruled out that the Milan initiative falls into this category. The grey area in which public bodies finance private citizens to install CCTV video surveillance is expanding swiftly. We will be intervening in the near future with special regulations”, promises Mr Pizzetti.

The privacy tsar invites Milan city council to consider whether the initiative is proportionate to the problem. “Is the privacy of citizens being sacrificed for an appropriate return in terms of enhanced security?” wonders Mr Pizzetti. “Of course it is”, responds Milan’s deputy mayor and councillor with responsibility for security, Riccardo De Corato. “We are proud that Milan is the most video-monitored city in Italy. CCTV combats criminals”.

The city council has installed 900 cameras around Milan in a technology-driven effort to discourage graffiti artists, drug dealers, muggers and parking offenders at a cost of 30 million euros. In addition, ATM, Milan’s local transport enterprise, wants to increase the number of cameras in the metro from 540 to 2,500 before the end of 2009.

Taxi drivers have greeted the city council incentives with moderate enthusiasm. Applications already received will enable the council to spend about 15% of the budgeted funds. The remaining funds – more than 800,000 euros – will be made available to newsstands so they can install more CCTV cameras. “Many drivers were worried that the electronic devices would be used by the council to check whether they were actually at work”, explains Claudio, one of the 117 Milan taxi drivers who have installed a camera. It cost him 2,400 euros, of which 1,000 came from city council funds. There is also a yearly subscription of 240 euros, which the driver has to pay. “

In 24 years on the streets of Milan, I’ve only been robbed once. They held a knife to my throat. It’s not an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat”, he tells us. In fact, there is another possible deterrent: portable handsets for ATM and credit card payments, which would reduce the amount of cash in the vehicle. But taxi drivers are unconvinced, claiming that bank charges are too high.