Video surveillance in flats and data protection law: the CJEU's recent judgment in TK




Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex

There is an increasing incidence of the use of video-surveillance and with it a need to find a framework in which the conflicting rights or those who are subject to such surveillance may be balanced.  While there is increasing case law surrounding state surveillance the position as regards private actors – beyond the fact that data protection laws may well apply – is less well-developed.  The recent case of TK deals with such a balance, but the ruling of the Court of Justice is far from ground-breaking.

The Facts

Three video cameras were installed in the common areas of a block of flats to deal with issues of vandalism and burglaries.  The owner of one of the flats in that block objected and sought to have the cameras removed.  National law permitted the use of video-surveillance without the data subject’s consent for specified uses including the prevention and countering of crime and the safety and protection of persons, property and assets.  The national court referred a number of questions concerning the national law’s compatibility with the Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46) (DPD) and provisions of the EU Charter.

The Judgment

The ECJ determined that the questions the national court referred should be understood together as asking whether Article 6(1)(c) and Article 7(f) DPD, read in the light of Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter, preclude national provisions which authorise the installation of a system of video surveillance installed in the common parts of a residential building, for the purposes of pursuing legitimate interests of ensuring the safety and protection of individuals and property, without the data subject’s consent.

These provisions of the DPD concern respectively the principle of data minimisation (Article 6(1)(c)), which requires that personal data must be ‘adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purposes for which they are collected and/or further processed’, and the permissibility of processing personal data where ‘necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the [data] controller [ie, the person who decides on the purposes and means of data processing] or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where such interests are overridden by the interests for fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject’ (Article 7(f)). The subsequent EU data protection law, the GDPR, has not significantly amended these rules, so there is no reason to believe that the judgment would have been different under the GDPR.

The Court confirmed the position in Ryneš(Case C-212/13), a 2014 judgment concerning the use of a home security camera (discussed here), that the system of surveillance cameras constitutes the automatic processing of personal data, but left it to the national court to assess whether the characteristics identified in Ryneš were satisfied here. It also reiterated that processing must fall within one of the six cases identified in Article 7 DPD. Considering Article 7(f), the Court – citing Rīgas satiksme (Case C-13/16), a 2017 judgment concerning personal data in the context of a dispute over liability for an accident – identified a three stage test:

-          the pursuit of a legitimate interest by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed;
-          the need to process personal data for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued; and
-          the fundamental rights and freedoms of the person concerned by the data protection do not take precedence over the legitimate interest pursued.

Consent of the data subject is not required.  While a legitimate interest has been claimed, the referring court was uncertain as to whether that interest must be ‘proven’ and be ‘present and effective at the time of the data processing’.  The court agreed that hypothetical interests would not satisfy Article 7(f) but in this case the requirement of a present and effective interest is satisfied given the instances of theft and vandalism prior to the installation of the CCTV.

Considering the second element of the test, this in line with existing case law must be interpreted strictly, that is that the legitimate aims cannot reasonably be as effectively achieved by other means less restrictive of fundamental rights. It must also be understood in the light of the principle of data minimisation in Article 6(1)(c) DPD.  While previous means of dealing with the vandalism and thefts have been ineffective, and the CCTV relates only to the common parts of the building, the Court noted that the proportionality assessment also must take into account the specific methods or installing and operating that device – for example, limiting the hours with the CCTV operates, or obscuring some images.

The final element constitutes a balance between the opposing interests, and this will be fact specific bearing in mind the significance of the data subject’s rights and specifically the seriousness of any infringement [56]. Member States may not prescribe, for certain categories of data, the outcome of any such balancing (see Breyer(Case C-582/14), para 62 – a 2016 judgment about IP addresses as personal data, discussed here). The Court also distinguished between personal data available from public sources and that from non-public sources, with the latter constituting a more serious infringement.  It ‘implies that information relating to the data subject’s private life will thereafter be known by the data controller and, as the case may be, by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed’[55].  The Court also identified the following factors:

-          the nature of the personal data at issue, in particular of the potentially sensitive nature of those data
-          the nature and specific methods of processing the data at issue, in particular
-          the number of persons having access to those data and the methods of accessing them
-          reasonable expectations that his or her personal data will not be processed
-          the importance of the legitimate interests pursued.

These factors are for the national court to balance and to determine the legitimacy of the processing.  The DPD does not per se preclude such a system.

Comment

The Court did not strike the national regime down.  This should not be read as a ruling in favour of those who seek to place their neighbours under surveillance. In the end, the Court leaves it to the national court to decide on the facts.  This acceptance of the boundary between the competence of the national courts (in re facts and national law) and the Court of Justice (in re EU law) does not mean that the national law is automatically acceptable from the perspective of EU law. Crucially the national law in issue itself contained a balancing requirement, so that individual instances in which CCTV was to be deployed should be assessed in light of the impact on the data subjects’ rights.  A national rule that did not contain such a requirement could be seen to fall foul of the position in Breyer, noted by the Court here, of specifying the outcome of a conflict between interests.

As noted above, this chamber judgment, based on the DPD, presumably will apply also to the relevant provisions of the GDPR (Article 6(1)(f)), so it may have future relevance. What can be learned?  The Court’s approach is to try to base its reasoning in existing case law.  Of note is the reiteration of the point that an ‘images allowing natural persons to be identified’ can be personal data [35]. As a small point of detail, the phraseology is slightly different from that in Rynes: in Rynes the Court explained its reasoning by suggesting that “…the image of a person recorded by a camera constitutes personal data … inasmuch as it makes it possible to identify the person concerned...” (Rynes, para 22). Whether there is a significance in this difference is unclear.  Arguably, in Rynes the identification point seems to explain why an image is personal data; in TK it could be read as limiting the circumstances in which images could be personal data.  It is not as clear as the individuation argument accepted in the recent English High Court decision in Bridges, concerning automatic facial recognition.

The main body of the judgment is focused on the legitimate interest ground, analysing it according to a three-staged test.  In this the Court relies on the inter-connectedness of the requirements in Article 6 (concerning data quality) and Article 7 DPD (legitimacy of processing). The judgment gives some light as to when the legitimate interests of the processer are real or not; in this instance there had been instances of vandalism and theft, but the Court expressly notes that it’ cannot, however, be necessarily required, at the time of examining all the circumstances of the case, that the safety of property and individuals was previously compromised’ [44].  This does not however give us much guidance as to how far away from hypothetical such a case would need to be to be ‘present and effective’.

The second element focuses on ‘necessity’, which the Court reminds us should be ‘strictly necessary’.  Yet, the Court’s explanation of this requirement seems to adopt a lower standard, that of reasonableness.  It states the requirement thus: that the objective ‘cannot reasonably be as effectively achieved by other means less restrictive of the fundamental freedoms’ [47].  The Court also equates this element to a proportionality principle, understood in the light of the data minimisation principle. The Court states that proportionality has been taken into account because a previous system (using access cars to access the common areas) had been tried and failed. This, however, seems to refer to necessity.

The Court then does consider the operation of the CCTV system, and whether constant surveillance is required, implicitly at this point considering data minimisation.  It is suggested that this issue has relevance for the balancing of rights, though it is not a factor listed as relevant for the third element of the test by the court.  The third stage lists some familiar considerations but does not go beyond their identification, giving the national court little guidance as to what these considerations might mean, how they might inter-relate and their respective importance.   It may be that the Court did not want to have to get into the difficult consideration of private space, especially shared private space. In this context, note that Rynes considered the impact of private surveillance on public space, but for the assessment of a different question: the extent of the household exemption.  Nonetheless, while the Court notes the relevance of Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter it gives no separate consideration to the issue of the right to a private life and data protection seen as a fundamental right.  For this, the judgment might be legitimately criticised.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9
Photo credit: Deacon Insurance

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