Surveillance Cameras and Employees’ Rights to Privacy
In a recent case in the European Court of Human Rights it was confirmed that two professors’ rights to privacy were violated by the introduction of surveillance cameras into lecture halls.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”) protects an individual’s right to respect for private and family life.
The case of Antovic and Mirkovic v Montenegro involved two professors who brought a claim against the University of Montenegro and others for violating their rights under Article 8 for the unauthorised collection and processing of data through the use of surveillance cameras. The University had made the decision to install the cameras in student auditoriums with a view to both protecting the safety of property and people and monitoring teaching. The University also recorded the lectures. The professors argued that the auditoriums where they taught were locked before and after classes, that the only property there was fixed desks, chairs and a blackboard and that there was no reason to fear for anybody’s safety. In the circumstances, they claimed that the use of surveillance cameras, without any possibility to control the process, was not provided for in legislation and was not justified.
The domestic Court in Montenegro found that there had been no violation of the professors’ Article 8 rights as the video surveillance cameras only captured public teaching areas.
The case was then considered by the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) who rejected the domestic Court’s findings. They held that the concept of “private life” must be interpreted broadly, including the right to lead a private social life. They confirmed that this may also include professional activities taking place in a public context. In these circumstances, the professors were not just teaching but also interacting with students in a social way and forming a social identify within this setting. As such, the Court held that the auditoriums should be treated like any other place of work and accordingly reconfirmed that workplace surveillance, whether covert or not, amounts to a considerable intrusion into an employee’s private life.
While this case involved the data protection law of Montenegro, it is a useful reminder of the importance of complying with our own data protection laws when using camera surveillance in the work place.
The Data Protection Act 1998 does not prevent employers from monitoring their employees, but employers should be aware that employees are entitled to some privacy at work. A balance must therefore be struck between protecting business interests, and employees’ right to privacy. Employers should give consideration to the nature of the problem they are seeking to address, and whether surveillance is an effective and proportionate solution to that issue and whether there could be better, and less intrusive, solutions. Information regarding the monitoring of staff should be contained in a relevant policy which is updated and reviewed regularly and any monitoring, which inevitably involves the processing of personal data, should not be excessive and should always be justified. Employees should be made aware both that they are being monitored, for example through the use of signage which confirms the location of surveillance cameras, and also the reasons for it. Where covert monitoring is being considered, this should only be for a genuine and specific reason for example when criminal activity is suspected.