A dangerous kind of neighbourhood watch!

A judge has ruled that a householder’s use of video and audio devices installed outside his property, ostensibly for the purposes of crime prevention, have breached a neighbour’s data protection rights, writes Mark Gipson, Partner, Birketts LLP. 

Jon Woodard landed a substantial fine for the infringement. The case highlights the importance of ensuring that when you use domestic CCTV and video doorbells (in this case the popular Amazon Ring doorbell device) you must respect people’s privacy rights and take steps to minimise intrusion to neighbours and passers-by.

Using CCTV systems within the boundary of your private domestic property (including your garden) will not trigger data protection issues. However, if your system captures images of people outside your property, for example in neighbours’ homes or gardens or public spaces, then the Data Protection Act will apply to the processing of these images, which are personal data. 

That does not mean that any such footage is automatically unlawful, but it does mean that you should use the equipment responsibly to protect the privacy of others.

This is where Mr Woodard fell short of his legal responsibilities. The area covered by his devices far exceeded what was reasonable as a deterrent against burglars. 

His Ring doorbell covered images of the claimant’s house and garden. He had installed a camera on his shed, which viewed almost all of the neighbour’s garden and her parking space. 

His cameras and Ring doorbell collected audio data – such data is considered particularly intrusive. The audio setting on his devices could not be switched off, and could capture conversations in his neighbour’s property.

You need to have a clear and justifiable reason for capturing images beyond your property boundary if it is to be a ‘legitimate interest’ under the Data Protection Act.

This means balancing your interests in processing the images against other individuals’ expectation of privacy. Make sure you are in a position to justify this and demonstrate proportionality if asked by an individual or the Information Commissioner’s office.

Don’t capture more footage than you need to. Ensure that the footage you do capture is held securely. Delete the data regularly. Consider putting up signage to warn people that the CCTV is in operation. Audio recording should be disabled wherever possible.

Mr Woodard’s troubles started when he demonstrated his state of the art surveillance systems to the neighbour who ended up taking action against him. 

She was “alarmed and appalled” to learn that footage from the camera on his shed covered large areas of her private property and its footage was sent to his smartphone.

The Information Commissioner suggests speaking to neighbours who may be affected before installing the systems, and listening to any objections or concerns they may have. 

By the time Mr Woodard spoke to his neighbour his system had been installed and he did not take it down or reduce its scope when she objected. Eventually the neighbour moved out of her home because of the dispute which arose.

Data protection legislation demands that people consider carefully the impact their CCTV systems have on the privacy rights of those around them. 

Consider the following questions: Do I really need CCTV, or are better locks, alarms or lighting adequate protection? The answer might be different depending on the neighbourhood and its crime rate. 

How can I minimise the coverage of spaces outside my property while still getting adequate protection? Do I need to record the images, or will a live feed be sufficient?

The cost of the breach to Mr Woodard was a fine of £100,000. Instead of protecting his home against burglars, he now risks losing it to pay the fine. The case is a sobering reminder of the importance respecting people’s data privacy rights when installing domestic CCTV systems.

• You can contact Mark Gipson by phone – 01473 406263 or email mark-gipson [at] birketts.co.uk