The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently (2 February) successfully prosecuted a business owner for operating CCTV without an appropriate notification under section 18 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), announcing:
Businesses could face fines for ignoring CCTV data protection law
But a recent case in the Scottish Sheriff Court shows that CCTV and data protection can also have relevance in private law civil proceedings. In Woolley against Akbar  ScotsSC 7 the husband and wife pursuers (equivalent to claimants in England and Wales) successfully brought a claim for compensation for distress caused by the defender’s (defendant in England and Wales) use of CCTV cameras which were continuously recording video and audio, and which were deliberately set to cover the pursuers’ private property (their garden area and the front of their home). Compensation was assessed at £8634 for each of the pursuers (so £17268 in total) with costs to be assessed at a later date.
Two things are of particular interest to data protection fans: firstly, the willingness of the court to rule unequivocally that CCTV operated in non-compliance with the DPA Schedule One principles was unlawful; and secondly, the award of compensation despite the absence of physical damage.
The facts were that Mr and Mrs Woolley own and occupy the upper storey of a dwelling place, while Mrs Akbar owns and operates the lower storey as a guest house, managed by her husband Mr Akram. In 2013 the relationship between the parties broke down. Although both parties have installed CCTV systems, the pursuers’ system only monitors their own property, but this was not the case with the defender’s:
any precautions to ensure that coverage of the pursuers’ property was minimised or avoided. The cameras to the front of the house record every person approaching the pursuers’ home. The cameras to the rear were set deliberately to record footage of the pursuers’ private garden area. There was no legitimate reason for the nature and extent of such video coverage. The nature and extent of the camera coverage were obvious to the pursuers, as they could see where the cameras were pointed. The coverage was highly intrusive…the defender also made audio recordings of the area around the pursuers’ property…they demonstrated an ability to pick up conversations well beyond the pursuers’ premises. There are four audio boxes. The rear audio boxes are capable of picking up private conversations in the pursuers’ rear garden. Mr Akram, on one occasion, taunted the pursuers about his ability to listen to them as the pursuers conversed in their garden. The defender and Mr Akram were aware of this at all times, and made no effort to minimise or avoid the said audio recording. The nature of the coverage was obvious to the pursuers. Two audio boxes were installed immediately below front bedroom windows. The pursuers feared that conversations inside their home could also be monitored. The said coverage was highly intrusive.
Although, after the intervention of the ICO, the defender realigned the camera at the rear of the property, Sheriff Ross held that the coverage “remains intrusive”. Fundamentally, the sheriff held that the CCTV use was: unfair (in breach of the first data protection principle); excessive in terms of the amount of data captured (in breach of the third data protection principle); and retained for too long (in breach of the fifth data protection principle).
The sheriff noted that, by section 13(2) of the DPA, compensation for distress can only be awarded if the pursuer has suffered “damage”, which was not the case here. However, the sheriff further correctly noted, and was no doubt taken to, the decision of the Court of Appeal in Vidal-Hall & Ors v Google  EWCA Civ 311 in which the court struck down section 13(2) as being incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the European data protection directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (my take on Vidal Hall is here). Accordingly, “pure” distress compensation was available.
Although the facts here show a pretty egregious breach of DPA, it is good to see a court understanding and assessing the issues so well, no doubt assisted in doing so by Paul Motion, of BTO Solicitors, who appeared for the pursuers.
One niggle I do have is about the role of the ICO in all this: they were clearly apprised of the situation, and could surely have taken enforcement action to require the stopping of the CCTV (although admittedly ICO cannot make an award of compensation). It’s not clear to me why they didn’t.
The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.