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Is Your Smart Doorbell a Liability?

30 November 2021

The Court (Oxford County Court) has recently decided that a “smart doorbell” and other home cameras together with the Defendant’s conduct were enough to constitute harassment and unlawful data processing, an offence which may result in damages of up to £100,000.

Case: Dr Mary Fairhurst -and- Mr Jon Woodard

Background

The claim arose following an invitation by Mr Woodard to Dr Fairhurst , his neighbour, to take a tour of his home renovations, where he showed off his new security system. Dr Fairhurst  was distressed over the level of surveillance equipment he had, and specifically cameras which viewed the side of her property and a camera mounted on his shed which recorded the communal car park.

A smart doorbell is an internet-connected replacement for a traditional doorbell. It can “ring” a smartphone or other device in your home, and integrate with a smart home automation system to display real-time video from your front door.

Once Dr Fairhurst was aware of the cameras she requested that these were removed, which resulted in a series of disputes between her and Mr Woodard, with her ultimately being too distressed to live or return to her home.

What was claimed?

Dr Fairhurst brought several claims against Mr Woodard:

1) Harassment.

Dr Fairhust claimed that, in breach of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (“PHA”), Mr Woodard’s behaviour constituted harassment, which requires a course of conduct that Mr Woodard should have reasonably understood to constitute harassment and that it wasn’t reasonable or necessary for the purposes of preventing/detecting crime.

2) Data Protection

Mr Woodard’s smart doorbell and cameras were in breach of the Data Protection Act 2018 (“DPA”) and the General Data Protection Regulation (EU 2016/679) (“GDPR”). Through recording data of a living person, he was considered to be “processing” (under section 3(4) of the DPA) and was therefore considered a “controller” (under Art 4 of the GDPR).

The GDPR guidelines in Art 5(1) set out criteria for the processing of personal data including that it shall be:

  1. Processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner in relation to the data subject;
  2. Collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner which is incompatible with those purposes; and
  3. Adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed.

Dr Fairhurst brought a claim for injunctive relief under s167 of the DPA to have the cameras removed and for compensation under Article 82 of the GDPR.

3) Nuisance

Dr Fairhust claimed that Mr Woodard’s behaviour constituted a nuisance by way of interference with enjoyment of land, as the surveillance equipment:

a) Resulted in a loss of privacy on the surveilled areas of his neighbour’s land; and
b) The lights from the recording equipment (which were motion triggered) disturbed his neighbour.

Court’s Judgment

Dr Fairhurst was successful in her claims for harassment under the PHA and unlawful data processing under the DPA and GDPR.

  1. The Judge ruled that Mr Woodard’s conduct and use of the Amazon Ring doorbell and other devices amounted to harassment. Dr Fairhurst told the court the devices placed her under "continuous visual surveillance" and that her neighbour had become aggressive when she complained about the cameras. The Judge was satisfied that the incidents and behaviour constituted a course of conduct which amounted to harassment and that Mr Woodard ought to have reasonably known it was harassment.
  2. The Judge found the cameras breached the Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK GDPR as the recordings were classed as her personal data. Her neighbour had failed to process her data in a fair and transparent manner as required by the DPA and GDPR.
  3. Dr Fairhurst  failed in her nuisance claims. The camera setup and lights over the car park were not enough to constitute a nuisance in an urban setting. Further, the Court of Appeal in Fearn and Ors v Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery [2020] EWCA Civ 104 decided that mere overlooking from one property to another is not capable of giving rise to a cause of action in private nuisance.

The level of damages in this case has not yet been determined but in theory they could be as high as £100,000. The judgment to decide the level of damages will be released in the coming weeks.

Conclusion

This is a watershed case which may result in multiple claims relating to Smart Doorbells being brought across the country. Notwithstanding this, people have the right to protect their property provided they are aware of the limitations on the scope and extent of the camera’s view which should be restricted so that it only records the area within the user’s own property. Careful consideration has to be taken in respect of neighbours’ and other individual’s personal rights and if in doubt, people should seek professional advice.

This article is provided by Burlingtons for general information only. It is not intended to be and cannot be relied upon as legal advice or otherwise. If you would like to discuss any of the matters covered in this article, please contact Charlotte Tyrrell or write to us using the contact form below.

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