The march of technology ..this time with domestic CCTV, highlighting poor privacy protections

December 31, 2014 |

From the land of the CCTV, the United Kingdom, comes a story that highlights how technology once thought of the province of government agencies and large organisations are readily available for use by the average citizen.  Sometimes the below average citizen.  In Neighbourhood watch: how domestic CCTV is sweeping the UK the Guardian highlights the complexities and privacy intrusive behaviour associated with the misuse of CCTVs. The UK is quite far advanced in having some legal means of dealing with privacy intrusive behaviours thought as the story makes clear it is far from a perfect solution.  CCTVs are often not the solution to an underlying problem, as highlighted in CCTV increases people’s sense of anxiety

At least the UK has a surveillance camera commissioner.  In Australia the use of CCTVs by the private sector may or may not be covered by the Privacy Act depending on the size of the private sector entity using the camera.  Surveillance legislation is state based and the regulatory structures differ, sometimes significantly.  Common law protections exist but they are often difficult to prosecute.  In short the legal landscape is something of a mess.  It is likely to get messier as technology moves on and the law remains much the same.

The article provides:

When Nick and Linda Hancock moved into a semi-detached house in a prosperous part of Cardiff in May 2011, they noticed something that was, at the time, unusual: the nextdoor neighbours had CCTV cameras installed. They didn’t think too much of it, though. “We didn’t want to cause an upset,” says Nick. “We hoped we could be good neighbours.”

Four years later, their battle with their neighbours, Desmond Hughes and Clare Anderson, has spiralled out of control – and even after a trip to the courts it’s still not resolved. It all began, according to Nick Hancock, when Hughes installed several additional cameras and pointed them into their garden.

The Hancocks knew Hughes had had disputes with previous neighbours, but they had hoped their relationship with him would be different; now they started to object. “We felt our privacy was being invaded. It was very upsetting for our daughter. She wanted to sit out in the sun and felt she couldn’t.” When they complained, Hughes refused to move the cameras and, Hancock says, Anderson told his wife to “get a life”. Hughes, unsurprisingly, describes things very differently. He says the cameras were there for safety. “I can’t go into the details,” he says darkly. “I was advised by the police.” Besides, he says, he wasn’t recording.

In the spring of 2012, the Hancocks wrote to Hughes complaining of harassment and asking for the cameras to be removed or redirected. “I told him that, if he did nothing, I would have no option but to seek police advice, which is what I did.” The police told Hughes they felt the Hancocks’ privacy was being violated, but still he did nothing. And so the police took him to court.

The Hancocks aren’t getting on any better with Hughes and Anderson today. And if their case is an extreme one, it is by no means unique. In fact, as I write this, I am peering at my neighbour’s CCTV camera, perched high up on his house. I can’t say this discreet device has ever bothered me, but the phenomenon is bothering lots of other people. This week Tony Porter, the government’s surveillance camera commissioner, announced he is going to do something about it.

Before the announcement, it’s a fair bet not many people had even heard of the surveillance camera commissioner, but his sudden emergence into the spotlight is a sign that something is stirring in Acacia Avenue. “The use of surveillance cameras within domestic environments continues to grow,” he said in his first annual report [pdf download]. “The cost of domestic CCTV systems is minimal, as electrical retailers now sell HD domestic CCTV systems for a little over £100. This upsurge in domestic use is directly responsible for an increase in complaints around their use.” He said 80% of “concerns coming into my inbox” relate to the use of domestic CCTV, and that they are “primarily about the intrusion into a neighbour’s privacy”.

In the past, under the auspices of the information commissioner (we now live in a world overseen by multiple commissioners), the emphasis has been on commercial CCTV. On the home-is-my-castle principle, domestic users have been exempt from rules governing privacy and proportionality. But that is about to change. New guidance is due to be published in March, and it is likely to extend the code of practice that currently covers commercial CCTV use to domestic properties.

If the commercial template is followed, domestic users will be asked to install signs saying surveillance is taking place, will be told how long they can retain footage and will be made responsible for the security of the images. At first, the code is likely to be voluntary, but Porter has made it clear that, if this doesn’t work, he will seek to make the rules compulsory.

Porter’s initiative is part of a wider backlash against CCTV, which under New Labour was seen as a panacea for countering all crime. In October, the information commissioner’s office told operators that “surveillance cameras must only be used as a necessary and proportionate response to a real and pressing problem”.

The commissioners’ concerns reflect a public fretfulness evident on the many websites and forums that air disputes between neighbours. The pro-CCTV lobby argue that they are within their rights to use cameras to protect their properties; the anti-camera brigade argue that their rights are being infringed by their neighbours’ prying cameras. They are, though, agreed on one thing: the rules are an inconsistently applied mess.

“We get a lot of submissions from the public with regard to problems they are having with their neighbours’ CCTV,” says Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User Group. Fry’s organisation primarily concerns itself with CCTV use by local authorities and companies, but in the absence of a domestic equivalent they are getting an ever-increasing number of complaints about domestic use.

“The problems are many and varied,” says Fry. “There are accusations of paedophilia if cameras are pointed into gardens where children play; there are issues of harassment, and concerns about people using zoom lenses. When people raise these issues with me, I usually suggest they take it up with the police.” He says the rules are confused and need clarification, but that, even though there is no specific law covering domestic CCTV, it may still be deemed to constitute harassment, and the courts may be willing to issue an asbo against the camera user.

Emma Carr of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch welcomes the commissioner’s initiative. “There have been a growing number of complaints on both sides,” she says. “But complainants didn’t know who to go to. If they go to the police alleging harassment, the police say it’s a data-protection issue, but if they then go to the information commissioner, he says it’s a matter for the police. People want to know where they stand.” She says improving technology and falling prices have made intrusion a pressing issue, and that the surveillance camera commissioner – who has been in post for less than a year – now feels ready to tackle it.

The Cardiff case dragged on for two years. Eventually, in July 2013, Hughes and Anderson were found guilty of harassment. Judge Bodfan Jenkins said their conduct was “unacceptable and oppressive … You continued pointing the cameras, which had nothing to do with security or tackling crime. This was a deliberate course of conduct designed to create unpleasantness and to harass and distress.” They were sentenced to 150 hours’ community service and given a restraining order.

But that was not the end of the affair. Hughes appealed unsuccessfully and a second case followed after he was accused of breaching the restraining order. The cameras have now been removed, but relations between the two couples remain nightmarish. “All we want to do is get on with our lives,” says Hancock. “We love the area and hoped that this would be our last house, but this is not a pleasant way to live. He [Mr Hughes] will not take no for an answer, or accept that his actions have an effect on other people.” Hughes, for his part, alleges that Hancock recently tried to trip him in the street.

Hughes has no intention of moving house. Nor does Hancock, who says that, even if he did, the value of the house would be affected, because you have to declare neighbour disputes when you sell. Not surprisingly, he would welcome a clarification of the rules governing the domestic use of CCTV cameras. “No one should be put in the position we’ve faced,” he says.

Hughes says he isn’t the only one who had cameras: by his account, the Hancocks set up covert cameras to spy on him. Hancock admits he put a camera with a motion sensor in his loft, and claims it caught Hughes peering in with a torch through a hole in the party wall.

This is a suburban farce taken to almost Hollywood extremes, but Hughes is unabashed. “It’s all a stitch-up,” he says. “I can tell you they’re all in for a very big surprise.”

A neighbour says that, rather than acting under police advice, Hughes originally installed the cameras to try to catch people staging cockfights in the fields behind the houses. Whatever the truth, most locals have little sympathy. “If you lived in an area with lots of theft and vandalism, fair enough,” says one. “But this is a quiet country lane in the suburbs. We don’t have any problems at all. There’s no need for CCTV.”

This is by no means an isolated case. Last year, Hugh Lovatt and Robert Hoppe – neighbours in the village of Buxton, near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders – ended up in court when Lovatt, who is paralysed, installed six CCTV cameras so he could monitor his wife’s safety while she was working at their stables. Hoppe claimed the cameras overlooked his garden, and the council ordered their removal. Lovatt appealed, and the decision was overturned by the Scottish government.

It accepted Lovatt’s argument that his neighbour’s privacy was not being infringed, as his garden was visible from the Lovatts’ house and the presence of a camera made no difference. “Should we ever wish to observe the mind-numbing activities of our neighbour’s grass growing,” said Lovatt, “we could do it from our patio.” The air of bitter triumph suggests these are two neighbours who won’t be exchanging Christmas cards any time soon.

Cameras, it seems, are replacing leylandii as the principal battleground for agitated neighbours. As technology improves and prices come down, the rise in CCTV-related disputes is likely to continue. Add to our obsession with security the anomie of a society that has less and less time or inclination for neighbourliness and you have a toxic mix that the commissioners will need to address quickly.

Porter has called for neighbours to show “common decency” when it comes to installing cameras, pointing out that other people will see them as “invasive”. He would prefer it if neighbours could learn to get along without the stick of regulation, but he may be disappointed. In anxious, dislocated Britain, “love thy neighbour” is rapidly being replaced by “film thy neighbour”.

One Response to “The march of technology ..this time with domestic CCTV, highlighting poor privacy protections”

  1. The march of technology ..this time with domestic CCTV, highlighting poor privacy protections | Australian Law Blogs

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