The highest court in Europe confirms that domestic CCTV can be caught by data protection law

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On 11 December 2014 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) gave a significant ruling that confirms that data protection legislation will apply to CCTV installed by a person on his family home for the purpose of protecting the property, health and life of the home owners if it also monitors a public space.

Until now, the Information Commissioner (who is responsible for UK compliance with data protection law) has consistently held that domestic CCTV is not caught by the Data Protection Act 1998 on the basis that it falls within the so-called “domestic purposes exemption”. This exemption provides that the processing of personal data by a person in the course of a purely personal or household activity is outside the scope of data protection law.

The ECJ’s ruling confirms that an individual cannot rely on this exemption where the CCTV also monitors a public space (such as the road outside a house) notwithstanding the fact that it was installed to protect the property and lives of the home owners. As a result, those who use CCTV on or around their homes may now have to comply with data protection law.

The ECJ’s ruling follows a referral by the Czech courts for clarification on the scope of the exemption as part of a case in the Czech Republic. The case involves an individual, Mr Ryneš, who was found to have breached data protection law by placing a CCTV camera on his home which covered a public footpath and the front of the house opposite. Mr Ryneš and his family had suffered a number of attacks on their home and on one occasion the CCTV captured images of two individuals who were subsequently prosecuted after Mr Ryneš shared the footage with the Czech police. The Czech court was asked to decide whether Mr Ryneš had committed a number of breaches of data protection law in his use of the CCTV. Mr Ryneš sought to rely on the domestic purposes exemption.

In its ruling, the ECJ indicated (albeit briefly) that such CCTV usage may be justifiable under data protection legislation despite not falling within the exemption. The matter of Mr Ryneš now returns to the Czech courts for a final decision.

The ruling has significant implications beyond the use of CCTV monitoring; in particular, for to the use of other data recording devices which are commonly used by individuals in public. For example, the use of body worn cameras by cyclists and dashboard cameras used by motorists for insurance purposes; filming on smartphones; and covert surveillance in care homes where relatives suspect mistreatment.

A significant question posed by the ruling is: what (or where) is a “public space”? Does this include a neighbour’s private property, for example? The ECJ has not provided any clarification on this point.

This ruling forms part of a series of judgments in which the European court has emphasised the importance of individual’s privacy rights. It is an important ruling for anyone who uses CCTV on their home as well as those who use other monitoring devices in public. The Information Commissioner is yet to comment on the ruling and is currently reviewing its position. We await its comment with interest.