Europe’s top court ruled Thursday that data protection rules apply to private surveillance cameras if they record people on the public footpath.
The regulations in question – the Data Protection Directive – insists personal information can't be held for longer than necessary, and that consent must be given, and so on, although it's being rewritten at the moment.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) made its ruling regarding surveillance cameras and the directive following the case of a Czech national, František Ryneš.
Ryneš installed a surveillance camera outside his house after it was repeatedly vandalized. In October 2007, he recorded two suspects breaking a window of the family home using a catapult from the street. He handed the recordings over to the police who identified the two suspects, who were subsequently prosecuted before the criminal courts.
However, one of the suspects said Ryneš had infringed his data protection rights, because he had been recorded without his consent while he was on the public footpath.
Today's data-protection directive contains an opt-out clause if the person doing the recording has a “legitimate interest in protecting the property, health and life of his family and himself.”
The Czech Supreme Administrative Court asked the ECJ in Luxembourg to decide whether Ryneš should benefit from the opt-out clause in the directive, or that the footage was recorded unlawfully.
In Thursday’s judgment, the ECJ decided that recording someone on the street is “personal data” because it is possible to identify the person concerned and that such video surveillance constitutes automatic data processing.
It said that the exception in the directive for “purely personal or household activities” did not apply because the footpath is a public space.
However it added that the “data subject” (in this case the window-breaking vandal) need not be told about the recording if it involved a “disproportionate effort.”
The court also said that data-protection rights could be set aside if necessary to “safeguard the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The ball is now back in the Czech court to decide on whether Ryneš's right to live in peace trumps a vandal's right to privacy.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, the German MEP who has steered Europe’s planned new data protection law through the European Parliament, said the clarification from the higher court was welcome:
“Those monitoring their property with video cameras and filming public spaces have to comply with data protection rules. They are allowed to record the public sphere only as far as absolutely necessary and proportionate for precise security interests.” ®