Could Your Smart Doorbell be Invading your Neighbours Privacy?

October 14, 2021

According to a new County Court judgment, yes.  

Neighbourly disputes made the headlines this week, triggered by the use of Amazon’s smart CCTV product, Ring. After the attempted theft of his car, Jon Woodward installed the devices around his home to make the most of Ring’s CCTV capabilities.  

However, Jon’s neighbour, Mary Fairhurst, felt these new devices were intrusive, and she explained to the court that the technology meant she was under constant and “continuous visual surveillance.”

She was alarmed by the possibility that the devices would catch sound and footage outside the installer’s property, and as a result, a legal battle ensued between the two.

The Court ruled in favour of the objecting neighbour in relation to her claims of harassment and breach of UK data protection law. The compensation is yet to be decided, but initial reports indicate she could receive more than £100K. She did also bring a claim for nuisance, but this failed due to a previous decision made by the Court of Appeal.

There was clearly some tension between the neighbours and disagreements about why Jon was storing video and audio files. While Jon was the victim of crimes at his property and understandably was looking for ways to make sure it didn’t happen again (or at least of catching the criminals if it did), his neighbour felt that potentially being caught on camera (or her guests being caught on camera) intruded on her privacy.

Is this judgment likely to be followed?

This judgment was in the County Court (which isn’t very high on the food chain when it comes to the English legal system) so no, this decision shouldn’t be given much weight. Another Court could decide on these issues another way and there are plenty of reasons why they might think differently. Not least because the UK GDPR specifically does not apply to “the processing (aka use) of personal data by an individual in the course of a purely personal or household activity”.  

There is an argument that use of CCTV products for your home security could be considered a personal or household activity but the judgment did not contain any discussion on this. According to the UK Information Commissioner (the head honcho of the ICO, the UK regulator for data protection matters), the data protection laws apply where you capture images beyond your property boundary.

Any practical advice?

It’s great that people are more aware of their rights in data protection law but when installing CCTV products that could pick up members of the public (or you are hoping not to upset any of your neighbours!), here are some handy tips:

  • Take a step back and think about what you need. Do you really need CCTV, or can you use other ways to improve the security of your property? In general, you should aim for the least intrusive approach. For example, maybe you install better lighting or an alarm system instead.
  • Can you set-up the camera so it only records footage of your property? (e.g. it doesn’t point onto a public pavement, or at your neighbour’s house) That is the simplest approach to take if you can.
  • If you can’t change the set-up and your CCTV shows part of a someone else’s property, be neighbourly. Have a cup of tea and a chat to make sure everyone is ok with it.  
  • Let people know you have a camera up – transparency is a very important principle in data protection law, and if your aim is to deter would-be criminals then any signs or putting your camera where it can be seen is a helpful measure anyhow
  • If you do decide to record footage, consider whether streaming is enough. If you need to store footage, make sure you only keep it for as long as you need it. Your neighbour might be fine with you keeping footage for 24 hours, but if you have months and months you can see how it can feel a bit creepier!

The ICO has detailed guidance on home CCTV on its website here.  

If you are business looking to install CCTV and you are worried about complying with the UK GDPR then the Information Commissioner has put together some guidance of key factors to consider here.  

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