The use of smart doorbells that automatically begin recording video and audio when motion is sensed may be facing new restrictions in the United Kingdom, due to a recent court ruling that found an Amazon Ring doorbell pointed at a neighbor’s property constituted an invasion of privacy under surveillance laws.
Judge Melissa Clarke ruled that a homeowner who had placed an “excessive” amount of smart doorbells around his property was in violation of both the UK Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). One camera in particular, posted on his neighbor’s wall, created a “surveillance zone” on her property that captured video and audio of her home.
The ruling is unlikely to impact standard doorbell use, but may set a precedent for the use of similar cameras around private property that are always on or have motion-enabled recording capabilities. Perhaps a bigger takeaway is that the homeowner who installed the cameras was found to be a “data controller” under the definitions of the GDPR by virtue of recording the neighbor, and thus subject to the substantial fines the privacy law provides for.
Under the ruse of concerns about crime, smart doorbell used to invade neighbor’s privacy, judge rules
Jon Woodard of Oxfordshire, UK is facing large fines after the judge upheld the invasion of privacy complaint made by his neighbor. Dr. Mary Fairhurst’s house sits opposite Woodard’s, separated by a short driveway that leads to a small shared parking lot. Woodard claims that he set up the system of smart doorbell cameras to protect his car, which sits in the lot along with those of Fairhurst and others, after a robbery there in 2018 in which another car was stolen. But the way in which the houses are situated saw Woodard placing Ring cameras on his duplex neighbor’s wall and a back shed among other areas in order to view traffic coming in and out of the lot. This put the cameras directly across from Fairhurst’s house, with a line of sight on a front door that faces toward the Woodard property.
Aside from what the judge described as “excessive” placement of the smart doorbell cameras, another central factor in the case is the automated recording feature. At the time of the complaint, in 2020, Ring doorbells automatically recorded audio when motion was detected. At the time this feature could not be turned off; this has since been changed via a firmware update. The fact that recording would be triggered whenever Fairhurst entered or left her house given the placement of the cameras, along with the fact that the recording distance was greater than 40 feet, was cited as a central element in the judge’s invasion of privacy ruling.
The ruling hit Woodard particularly hard as the judge opted to view him as a “data controller” under the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK GDPR terms, with the personal data in question being video and audio of Fairhurst on her property. This allows for fines of up to £100,000, though the actual amount will not be determined until a hearing that takes place in November.
Will invasion of privacy cases force a smart doorbell redesign?
While this case will likely force UK homeowners to think twice about how they place their cameras, it is unclear if it will have a significant impact on the market. It would most likely take further similar rulings to force a redesign of smart doorbell products.
Homeowners will need to take into account that the audio recording range usually exceeds the video range with these types of cameras, and may go beyond what the law allows for personal security use. The automated system that caused trouble in this case is now optional with Ring and a number of other products; these cameras also now often include “Privacy Zone” settings that can block out recording of certain sensitive areas, as well as filters that will automatically stop recording audio when a human voice is detected. The latter feature is particularly important as a number of countries and localities have laws allowing for surreptitious video recording, but requiring the knowing consent of all parties involved if audio is recorded.
Another factor in the decision for an invasion of privacy ruling was that there were no warning signs posted that video and audio were being recorded in the area. And when Fairhurst brought her concerns about the cameras to Woodard, the judge said that his “aggressive” response (which reportedly caused her to feel unsafe and move out of the house) was also a factor in the decision. This would indicate that proper notification and handling of legitimate complaints would be an element in avoiding being found to have committed invasion of privacy by a UK court.
Amazon responded to the case by saying that its smart doorbell products should be used in accordance with all relevant local laws and that invasion of privacy should be avoided by keeping cameras away from other people’s property as much as possible.