It’s becoming increasingly common for the use of video doorbell and security cameras in residential properties.  Often, disputes arise out of the use of such devices.

In Fairhurst v Woodard the county court was called upon to consider claims for harassment under the Protection for Harassment Act 1997, and breach of the Data Protection Act 2018.

Background

In this case, the claimant and defendant were neighbours.  An access road (the driveway) leading into a car park ran along the claimant’s boundary and the rear gardens of both properties backed onto a car park.

The defendant installed the following devices at his property:

  1. A flood light and sensor on the shed in his rear garden, together with a video and audio surveillance camera with an integrated motion sensitive spotlight as a “ring” spotlight camera pointing in the direction of the car park
  2. Next to the front door, a combined doorbell and video and audio surveillance system known as a “ring” video doorbell too, pointing in the direction of the street
  3. On the gable end wall, a second “ring” spotlight camera, pointing down the driveway towards the car park
  4. A “nest” camera inside the front windowsill of the property, pointing out of the window towards the street

The claimant noticed the shed camera and the ring doorbell in the spring of 2018.

The claimant noticed the driveway camera in April 2019.  Having noticed the camera, she sent a text message to the defendant asking to discuss the “intrusive” camera.  The defendant claimed it was a dummy camera with a working light.

Various interactions between the claimant and defendant followed, together with an increasing level of hostility between the parties.

Claimant’s claims

The claimant brought proceedings against the defendant.  In those proceedings the claimant claimed the defendant had consistently failed to be open and honest with her about the cameras, and unnecessary and unjustifiably invaded her privacy by his use of the cameras, and had intimidated her when challenged about their use.

The claimant claimed this amounted to:

  1. A nuisance caused by loss of privacy or light from the driveway camera
  2. A breach of the Data Protection Act 2018 and GDPR
  3. Course of conduct designed to harass the claimant contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

In the claim, the claimant sought damages together with injunctive relief against the defendant, including mandating the removal of the ring doorbell and shed camera, and forbidding the installation of further surveillance cameras.

Decision of the county court

The county court upheld the claimant’s claims for harassment under the Protection for Harassment Act and breach of the Data Protection Act 2018, but rejected the claim for nuisance.

So far as the claim for harassment was concerned, the court held that the defendant had engaged in a course of conduct, and that the course of conduct amounted to harassment.  There were several occasions when the defendant had caused the claimant alarm and distress.

The court rejected the case for nuisance caused by loss of privacy, the court having found that it was bound by the Court of Appeal’s decision in Fearn and ors v The Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery.  In that case, the Court of Appeal held that mere overlooking from one property to another is not capable of giving rise to a cause of action in private nuisance.

So far as data protection was concerned, the court accepted that the defendant had breached the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK GDPR by unlawfully processing personal data of the claimant containing images and audio files via the cameras.

The court reminded itself that to process personal data lawfully, a controller must be able to justify the processing based on one of the processes set out in article 6(1) of the UK GDPR.  The defendant had relied on the legitimate interest condition under article 6(1)(f), claiming that his processing of the data was necessary for the purposes of crime prevention at his property and in the car park.

In respect of the ring doorbell, the court was satisfied that the privacy rights of the claimant did not override the legitimate interest of the defendant to protect his home.  This was because any video personal data captured by the ring doorbell of the claimant as she went to and from her house on a public street was deemed to be merely incidental because of the relatively limited range and focus of the device.

However, in respect of the driveway camera, the judge was not satisfied that it’s line of vision on the claimant’s property (including her side gate, garden and her car parking spaces) was necessary for the purposes of the crime prevention legitimate interests.  The court considered that as less privacy intrusive measures could be deployed by the defendant, his crime prevention purposes here were overridden by the claimant’s right to privacy.

The audio data collection capabilities of the ring doorbell, shed camera and driveway camera were also deemed not to be reasonable for the crime prevention purposes relied on by the defendant.  The audio range of these devices was found to extend far beyond their video range and were capable of collecting audio data from their neighbours and areas outside the boundaries of the defendant’s property, with those individuals likely to be unaware that their conversations were being recorded.

Commentary

This has attracted a large amount of media attention.

It should be noted that this is only a county court case, and therefore is not binding.

The court’s analysis of the data privacy risks posed by the audio and video collection capabilities of these kind of surveillance devices provide practical examples of the scenarios.

The Information Commissioner has also issued CCTV guidance