Ring doorbells, audio and video monitoring equipment, data protection, and suspiciously long raincoats

A bad photo of a Fanvil doorbell mounted on a red brick wall, with an ethernet cable going up the left hand side

Have you put up, or are thinking of putting up, audio and video recording equipment around and outside your home? Then this post is for you.

It's about a decision of the Oxford County Court, for October 2021. If you want, you can read the judgment.

Beware: it is quite long, and there is considerable discussion of the weight the judge attached to various people's evidence.

What was the case about?

In essence, it was a dispute between neighbours, relating to one neighbour's installation of multiple pieces of audio and video recording equipment, in places which recorded activity taking place outside their home.

This included recording of the area around two private parking spaces in a communal car park, of a shared, possibly public, drive way leading to the car park, as well as a camera mounted on a shed, and on a windowsill point out towards a public road.

The claim encompassed harassment, nuisance, and data protection claims.

What did the court decide?

The court found for the claimant - the objecting neighbour - on their claims of harassment and breach of the UK GDPR / Data Protection Act 2018.

They court did not find for the claimant on their claims of nuisance caused by loss of privacy, or nuisance caused by light triggered by one of the cameras turning on a floodlight.

The former failed, according to the court, because of a previous Court of Appeal decision that:

mere overlooking from one property to another is not capable of giving rise to a cause of action in private nuisance.

The latter failed, according to the court, because, while the floodlight was likely to be irritating, it was not sufficiently so to enable a finding of nuisance.

The data protection claims

The court found for the objecting neighbour on their data protection claims.

Processing and controllership

The court held that:

  • the overall system, through its collection, transmission, retention, and sharing of the resultant files with neighbours and police, entailed the processing of personal data
  • the neighbour who installed the equipment was a data controller. (The court did not consider whether the defendant was the only data controller; given that some of the equipment comprised Ring cameras, there's scope for debate here, but it was not relevant to a claim of one neighbour against another.)

No discussion of the "domestic purposes" exemption

I was surprised to see no discussion / argument relating to the (purported) application of the so-called "domestic purposes" exemption. This says that the UK GDPR does not apply to:

the processing of personal data by an individual in the course of a purely personal or household activity

There might be good reason for this: the CJEU decision of Ryneš.

The gist of that decision is:

the operation of a camera system, as a result of which a video recording of people is stored on a continuous recording device such as a hard disk drive, installed by an individual on his family home for the purposes of protecting the property, health and life of the home owners, but which also monitors a public space, does not amount to the processing of data in the course of a purely personal or household activity, for the purposes of that provision.

However, since there are some key differences - no "continuous recording", no continued retention on a hard drive - I'm surprised there was no attempt to distinguish the case on the facts.

The data protection breaches

The court held that the installing neighbour had:

  • breached the first principle, which requires processing of personal data in a fair and transparent manner.

  • breached the second principle, as he had not collected data for a specified or explicit purpose.

  • a lawful basis for the processing of personal data in the context of videos created by the Ring Doorbell, having done a legitimate interests balancing test and finding for the installing neighbour.

  • no lawful basis for the processing of audio data from his Ring Doorbell.

  • breached the third principle, requiring that processing is "adequate, relevant, and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which [the personal data] are processed", in respect of the audio monitoring, as the neighbour could "surely" have achieved their objective with something less intrusive.

  • no lawful basis for the camera which monitored only the shared/public driveway, primarily because the court felt the installing neighbour could have achieved his purpose with something focussed specifically on his parking spaces.

To what compensation is the objecting neighbour entitled?

We do not know yet.

What does it mean for you, if you have installed, or want to install, cameras?

Dare I say it, but the main thing I'd take from this judgment is that being neighbourly, respectful of those living near you, and just generally being thoughtful, is likely to carry you a long way. Not a legal point, but there we go.

The second thing is that this is "just" a county court decision. It is unlikely to carry much weight from a legal point of view, despite the judge's careful and detailed analysis.

Beyond that, if you have, or are thinking of installing, cameras, here are some things you might bear in mind:

  • Can you limit the equipment to covering only your own property? If you can, that's the way to go.

  • The court appeared to be largely unconcerned by the prospect of a video-recording doorbell covering the road, which records people "only incidentally as [they] walk past" unless they go up to the door. If you can place it in a way which avoids this while still fulfilling its purpose - although whether that's its purpose as a doorbell or as a wider security device, the court did not say - then that would still be sensible (and, in my view, a legal requirement).

  • Does the purpose for which you are using the camera(s) really need audio monitoring? What would the impact be - the real world impact, not a theoretical impact - if you turned this off or bought equipment which did not offer this? If you really do need audio monitoring, can you limit the recording distance / microphone sensitivity, to minimise unwarranted intrusion?

  • What is the least intrusive way of achieving your objective? You'll be hard pressed to justify a higher level of intrusion if you achieve your goal with a lesser degree of intrusion.

  • If you can't do more than the bare minimum requirement of transparency, at least make sure you do that. But if you can - perhaps consulting with neighbours, discussing your plans with them in advance - it might be a good way of avoiding an expensive dispute by identifying their concerns and addressing them, rather than getting entrenched in arguments down the line.

  • Do you really need cameras which upload audio and video to a third party, rather than storing it locally, with remote access (if needed) to that local storage? Although not an issue discussed in the case...

What's that about a raincoat?

One of the installing neighbour's contentions was that one of their cameras recorded someone who they described as:

a suspicious man in a long raincoat – in a suspiciously long raincoat

I've never thought of raincoats as being:

  • long
  • extra long
  • suspiciously long

but there we go.