The answer lies in a further question – what is your doorbell recording?

A well publicised case in the Oxford County Court following a two day hearing brought this issue to the fore when a defendant was reported to have to pay around £100,000 in damages to his neighbour in a case involving a smart doorbell.

Fairhurst v Woodward [2021] concerned neighbours who lived at Numbers 83 and 87 on Cromwell Avenue in Thame, Oxfordshire. The Defendant had various devices installed about his property (and on another bordering property) that monitored and recorded audio and video images. The devices included a Ring Spotlight Camera and a Ring Doorbell. The claimant first became concerned when she was invited by the defendant to view certain renovation works that he was carrying out at his property and was alarmed by the scope of one of the cameras.

There were three parts to the claimant’s claim – one under nuisance, one under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and another for breaches of the Data Protection Act 2018. The claim for nuisance failed, but the other two claims succeeded. Evidence was provided to suggest the Ring Doorbell covered almost all of the Claimant’s house and front garden and some of her back garden was captured by another device as well as her parking space. The claim for harassment succeeded because the Defendant told the Claimant he had sent her and her friend’s image to the police and would be installing more cameras. The defendant had tried to argue that it was not harassment because it was in the vein of detecting or preventing crime. The judge was unimpressed with this defence. The claimant therefore received damages for distress.

In relation to breach of data protection principles the judge found that the video evidence from the doorbell was only likely to be collected occasionally and was less troubled by that than the audio surveillance. The judge found that the Defendant’s collection of data was excessive, the legitimate collection of data would have had a narrower focus and not so much impeded on the Claimant’s right to privacy.

The real issue for most people, who have video and audio doorbell devices and use them in the usual way, is likely to be data protection. The Data Protection Act 1998 (“the DPA”) provides protections regarding personal data. “Personal Data” is “any information relating to an identified or identifiable individual”. “Processing” includes the collecting, recording, storage, transmission and erasure of information. A “Data Controller” is a person who alone or jointly determines the means of processing of the personal data. In the case of a doorbell recording sounds and images it is easy to see how it falls into the DPA – The camera and microphones capture images of people, the image is transmitted to the phone or computer and it is likely transmitted and deleted again during processing. In the Fairhurst and Woodward case the judge was quick to find the Defendant was a data controller.

The next set of questions under the DPA concern whether the processing complies with the regulations setting out the guidelines that must be followed. Article 5(1) provides that personal data must be i) Processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner in relation to the data subject; ii) collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not in a manner which is incompatible with those purposes and ; iii) adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed. Helpfully the ICO have published guidance ‘How can we comply with the data protection principles when using surveillance systems”. It includes a checklist for smart doorbells, this is for commercial premises but the principles are likely to be helpful in any event.

If your camera is strictly limited to capturing images within the boundaries of your property then it is not the case that data protection laws will apply. If however you are capturing images beyond that then you risk falling into the definitions and being caught by the DPA. If you are a data controller then you should be registered with the Information Commissioners Office as a data Controller and you will need to pay an annual fee which in 2022 was £40.

Assuming you are caught by the DPA you must ensure that you are limiting the field of vision to that which is strictly necessary and not needlessly intruding on a neighbour’s privacy. Whether you really even require a smart doorbell is another question to contemplate. It may be there has been criminal activity in the area or you are vulnerable. Your doorbell may be restricted to your entrance only. You should also put appropriate signage up to inform individuals you are using security cameras which cover the public space and be open with your neighbours about this. You should ensure the footage is secure, not shared when it is not supposed to be and it should be deleted regularly when it is no longer necessary to retain it. The data minimisation principles are important ones to justify data processing.

You should also know that a data subject has rights against a camera owner as a data controller. You could be required to confirm what data you hold about them and they may ask you to not record any information or delete certain information.

It is important to think carefully about the purchase and positioning of a smart doorbell. Complying with the ICO’s guidance and making sure that you are open about any recording will protect you from claims in respect of recordings. Whilst the damages awarded to Dr Fairhurst were substantial it is important to consider that that there was a finding of harassment. It is also important to be clear that each case turns on its facts, if you have any queries or you are faced with a claim please contact us directly for advice on your specific circumstances.