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Istanbul Taxi Cameras Prompt Surveillance Concerns

FILE - A yellow taxi drives past a poster depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.

In Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, cameras are being installed inside taxis in a move city authorities claim will provide security for both drivers and passengers. But with the ongoing crackdown over last year’s failed coup locking up more than 60,000 people and purging nearly 200,000 from their jobs, fears are growing that the measure is the latest effort to extend surveillance and control over the people.

An advertisement touts the benefits of Istanbul’s Itaxi. New taxis will be fitted with GPS tracking to allow drivers to find the quickest and cheapest route, as well as equipment to pay by credit card - all measures, the advert assures, aimed at enhancing passengers' experiences.

The new taxis were announced to great fanfare. But the installation of a large digital camera in each vehicle, which authorities say will protect both drivers and passengers, is sparking controversy.

When you get in a taxi, the camera is clearly visible. What is unclear is whether it records sound as well as images, and where the images go. A driver VOA spoke to was more than happy with the device, although he admits he does not know who is watching.

" The new system is what is needed. I had an incident on Sunday night. I was attacked by a customer. If this system had been active, I would have been saved right away or the attacker wouldn’t have dared to attack," the driver said. "There is a camera system and a panic button now."

Not everyone in Istanbul appears so convinced. Another person VOA talked to questioned the motives behind the initiative.

"Some bad guys are stealing money from the taxi drivers or taxi drivers sometimes do violence against the women in the cabs, things like that, I think," said the person who did not want to be identified. "If they do this for the real criminals then it's not a bad idea. But we have doubts about [whether] our government, or policemen are doing this about the real criminals or not. A witch hunt is happening in Turkey now. So if they are using [this] for things like that, then of course it's not a good idea to have things like that in the cabs."

FILE - Yellow taxis pass people standing in silence during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul.
FILE - Yellow taxis pass people standing in silence during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Failed coup attempt

Nearly every week there are trials for people accused of being involved in last year’s failed coup. Currently over 60,000 people languish in jail on coup plotting charges. Last year, 4,000 were prosecuted for defaming the president. Under emergency powers introduced following the botched military takeover, sweeping new electronic surveillance has been introduced, according to law professor Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. He has been studying the rise of surveillance culture, and warns concerns over the new taxis may be well-founded.

"Nowadays, something like this looks very suspicious because we have no idea where the data is transferred to or whether they have face recognition technology or voice recognition technology," Akdeniz said. " A lot of people are being investigated and prosecuted for allegedly defaming the president of Turkey. Because increasingly people are under surveillance and people don't know what sort of technology or what sort of things are deployed by the government to monitor the citizens and it will get worse."

There is a growing sense of concern seeping into Turkish society regarding surveillance. With the ongoing government crackdown and continuing prosecutions for insulting the president, any new innovation involving surveillance technology seems destined to be viewed with suspicion.