Surveillance cameras at work

16 February 2018

Secret cameras in the workplace could be breaching the European Convention on Human Rights. Are you complying?

If you think that your employees are stealing from you, you can install a hidden camera to catch them, can’t you? Well, in most situations - no. The European Court of Human Rights decided in Lopez Ribalda and others v Spain that it was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights to do so. 

A Spanish supermarket installed surveillance cameras as they suspected theft. They put up some visible cameras to catch customers stealing goods. However, they also put in place some hidden cameras behind the cash desks to see if any of their employees were stealing from them. These cameras were on all the time, for weeks, and filmed all employees. The cameras caught several employees stealing items, and helping co-workers and customers steal items and they were dismissed. 

The ex-employees argued that their right to privacy had been violated. You might be surprised to hear that the court agreed. Video surveillance at work is a significant intrusion into private life and a fair balance between the employer’s rights and the employees’ rights had not been struck. The Court observed that the employer’s rights could have been protected by other means, for example by informing the employees in advance of the video surveillance system and providing them with the information required under Spanish data protection law. 

In a similar German case (Kopke v Germany) the employer did not breach the right to privacy because the surveillance was targeted at particular people they suspected of theft, was necessary for the purposes of catching them and was time-limited. 

In the UK, guidance published by the Information Commissioner states that hidden cameras will very rarely be justified unless there are exceptional circumstances, for example, where it is absolutely necessary as part of an investigation into suspected criminal activity. The Information Commissioner’s website has useful guidance on the use of surveillance cameras.

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