Updated: Dec 20, 2021
A British court has awarded a woman in Oxfordshire £100,000 damages in a dispute with her neighbour over his use of Ring doorbell cameras, a case which has important implications for police forces and local authorities.
The case centres around a complaint by Dr Mary Fairhurst who claimed that Jon Woodward’s use of Ring doorbells around his property as surveillance devices amounted to harassment. Mr Woodward had installed two Ring doorbells and two dummy units on the outside of his property following break ins to his car.
Dr Fairhurst told the court that she had complained to Mr Woodward about the cameras and that he had responded aggressively.
Judge Melissa Clarke, sitting at Oxford County Court, ruled that the Ring doorbells breached the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). She said that the images captured by Mr Woodward’s cameras were Dr Fairhurst’s personal data. The judge ruled that Dr Fairhurst was entitled to compensation and orders preventing Mr Woodward from continuing to breach her rights with his security devices.
According to the Daily Mail, Amazon – which owns Ring – responded to the story by telling Ring users they need to ensure that people are aware they could be filmed by the cameras by putting stickers up on the outside of their homes. However, see below for more advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about ensuring that domestic CCTV systems are complying with the law.
Ramifications for the police and local authorities
The case could set a precedent for more than 100,000 owners of Ring doorbells in the UK.
It also has ramifications for police and local authorities who loan doorbell recording and monitoring devices to victims of harassment. As the police and local authority retain ownership of the devices, the liability for their use or misuse could remain with them.
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 apply to the use of domestic CCTV. The guidance says that there are no restrictions on its use if cameras are set up in a way that don't capture any images from beyond the boundaries of your property.
However, data protection rules apply if a camera is capable of capturing images of people outside the boundaries of your property, for instance on the pavement or road, in neighbours’ homes or gardens, or shared spaces.
The use of a doorbell camera in a block of flats presents a particular problem if it is pointing toward a neighbour’s front door and is motion activated each time they open their door, leading to the recording of images of the inside of their home through their open door.
There is precedent for this case in European data protection law. The 2014 case of Rynes v Urad in the Czech Republic established that the image of a person recorded by a camera is personal data as it makes it possible to identify a person. It also established that there is no blanket exception for the use of CCTV sited on domestic properties, and the owner of the cameras becomes a data controller if the cameras record images from outside the boundaries of the property.
CCTV User Group position on domestic CCTV
The CCTV User Group does not have a position on the use of CCTV in domestic properties. We are primarily concerned with the use of CCTV in public space surveillance which includes public areas and private property which is considered to be publicly accessible.
However, there is an overlap in this case due to the potential risk presented to police and local authorities which provide CCTV systems including doorbell cameras to vulnerable people to allow them to monitor and record activity in or near their home.
This case opens these authorities to potential liability should someone complain about intrusive surveillance.
While public authorities are allowed to use cameras for the purposes of detecting and investigating crime, the images are generally not made available to members of the public, something which cannot be said for a doorbell camera in a domestic residence.
The ICO advice is to ensure that cameras are not capable of recording people outside the boundaries of the property where they are sited. We believe this can generally be achieved by careful positioning of the cameras so they don’t point outside the boundaries and by the use of masking devices (either physical or electronic) to block off areas which are not to be viewed or recorded.
Read ICO advice: Domestic CCTV systems - guidance for people using CCTV
The ICO also advises users of domestic CCTV to put up signage indicating to visitors that they may be recorded.
The ICO advises against the use of audio recording as this is particularly privacy intrusive. However, a key feature of the Ring doorbell and other similar devices is the ability to talk to a person who’s outside your front door without opening the door.
The ICO says you are not automatically in breach of data protection laws if you are recording outside the boundaries of the property. If you feel there is a strong reason for doing so, you need to be prepared to justify your reasons if asked by the ICO. You will also need to put up signage warning people that they are being recorded and why, ensure the data is held securely and cannot be viewed by anyone without good reason, only keep the footage as long as you absolutely need it, and ensure that the footage is not misused by you or anyone else who has access to the recordings.
You must also be prepared to respond to subject access requests from the public, delete images of people if they request it, and consider any objections you receive from members of the public.
* Note, this article does not constitute legal advice. Please go to the ICO website for more information and consult a specialist solicitor for professional advice.