Initial comment on neighbour winning privacy row over smart doorbell and cameras

October 29, 2021
Tim Heywood


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A homeowner has won a legal privacy case after a County Court judge ruled that a neighbour’s Ring doorbell, which has video and audio recording capabilities, and additional security cameras “unjustifiably invaded” her privacy.

The case makes interesting reading for any of us who might be considering installing cameras for our home security and those who already have them.  The Defendant, a private individual who, some might say simply went a little over the top with his home security measures, faces having to pay damages and not insignificant legal costs as a result of the dispute.

Amazon, which makes both the Ring doorbell and security cameras, has stated that customers must “respect their neighbours’ privacy, and comply with any applicable laws when using their Ring device”.

gunnercooke Data Protection and Cyber LawPartner Tim Heywood FRSA comments on aspects of the case and how homeowners need to take into account GDPR and privacy laws and possible implications for tech companies…

“This case centred on the unlawful video and audio recording of a neighbour’s drive and garden which broke data laws and contributed to harassment.

“Despite claiming that the devices were installed in good faith as a deterrent against burglars, the defendant now faces a substantial fine as the data collection was deemed to have gone beyond ’legitimate interest’ of crime prevention (the Defendant had been concerned to keep his car and property secure) and not taken proper account if his neighbour’s right to privacy.

The judge concluded that the video function on the Ring Doorbell was sufficiently limited in terms of its field of vision but that the audio function was far too powerful and had been capable of recording peoples’ voices (including the neighbour’s voice when she was in her own garden) some 40 feet or so away from the Defendant’s front door. This was excessive and breached her right to privacy under the Data Protection Act (DPA).

Householders might be surprised that it is not just businesses that have to respect the DPA. Video and audio recordings are capable of being “personal data” whether they are collected by anyone in the UK. This doesn’t mean we can’t have smart doorbells, but it does mean we have to instal them with our neighbours’ privacy in mind and if we supplement them with other cameras we have to be sure this is proportionate to ensuring our legitimate desire to prevent break-ins.

So the simple advice is “don’t point your cameras at your neighbour’s property”. And if the camera has audio capability as well, either turn it off or ensure that it is set at ‘low’ so it only captures sound in the immediate vicinity (probably no more than a few feet away, but it will depend on the precise location).

As well as homeowners, this case might also be food for thought for tech businesses that manufacture and supply such devices.

“It’s not the first time that Ring has been linked to privacy fears, with (apparently) even the FBI raising concerns in the past that some devices were being used to spy on police.

“It is interesting also that, despite Amazon’s advice to users people to respect their neighbour’s privacy and comply with applicable laws, the Ring doorbell apparently did not have a feature to turn off the ‘always on’ audio recording facility prior to an update in 2020.

“Amazon also rolled out end-to-end encryption in 2021, meaning only the owner of the doorbell can view recordings.

   Businesses should take care to ensure their product design offer users sufficient flexibility to take account of data protection laws here and in other jurisdictions…

If you have any specific enquiries relating to Data Protection, UK GDPR compliance, policies, procedures and training for your organisation, then contact Tim Heywood who has experience across the private sector including global tech companies and tech service providers: [email protected]