Content Regulation / Censorship, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention, Defamation / Reputation
Hegglin v. Google
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Chamber of the Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the United Kingdom had violated the right to respect for private life in a case concerning the disclosure of the footage recorded by the Brentwood Borough Council’s installed CCTV camera to press, wherein the applicant attempted suicide. The Court observed that the disclosure by the Brentwood Borough Council of the footage constituted a serious interference with the applicant’s right to respect for his private life. The Court did not find that there was any reasonable justification for the direct disclosure by the Council to the public of the applicant’s footage in “CCTV News”, without obtaining the applicant’s consent or masking his identity. The Court noted that particular scrutiny and care were needed given the crime prevention objective and context of the disclosures. Therefore, the Court considered that although the disclosure of the footage was provided by law and pursued a legitimate aim, it was unnecessary and constituted a disproportionate and unjustified interference with the applicant’s private life and a violation of Article 8.
In February 1994, the Brentwood Borough Council (the Council) approved guidelines for the operation and installation of a CCTV surveillance system in Brentwood. Under the guidelines, the CCTV tape recordings ought to be retained for ninety days and would be erased on completion of the storage period. After two months i.e, in April 1994 the Council installed a CCTV surveillance system in Brentwood which was fully operational by July 1994.
In 1995, Geoffrey Peck (the Applicant), was suffering from depression owing to personal and family circumstances. On August 20, 1995, the Applicant walked alone down the high street towards a central junction in the center of Brentwood with a kitchen knife and attempted to commit suicide by cutting his wrists [Para. 10]. The Applicant was unaware that he was recorded by one of the Council’s CCTV cameras. The footage later disclosed did not show the applicant cutting his wrists, the operator being solely alerted to an individual in possession of a knife [para. 10]. The police officials after being notified by the CCTV operator, reached the location. They took the knife from the Applicant, provided medical assistance, and escorted him to a police station where he was detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. The custody records stated that the Applicant had self-inflicted injuries to his wrists and was released after examination by the doctor without charge and taken home by police officers [para. 11].
Later, the CCTV working party of the Council agreed to authorize the release of regular press features on the CCTV system. On October 9, 1995, the Council’s first press feature (CCTV News) was released, which included two still photographs taken from the CCTV footage of the Applicant to accompany an article entitled “Defused- The partnership between CCTV and the police prevents a potentially dangerous situation” [para. 13]. The following week, the Brentwood Weekly News newspaper used a still photograph of the incident involving the Applicant on its front page to accompany an article on the use and benefits of the CCTV system. Another article, entitled “Gotcha” posted the Applicant’s photograph in the Yellow Advertiser, “a local newspaper with a circulation of approximately 24,000 readers. The article signifies the role of the CCTV system in defusing the Applicant’s attempt to suicide [para. 15].
Anglia Television sought footage of the incident from the Council to include it in a news program and broadcasted the same to an audience of 350,000. .e . The applicant’s face was masked after the Council’s request, however, the Independent Television Commission later found that Peck’s distinctive hairstyle and mustache could be seen, making him easily recognizable to anyone who knew him [para. 16].
The Applicant became aware that he had been filmed on CCTV and that footage had been released after a neighbor told his partner that they saw him on television. On February 16, 1996, The Yellow Advertiser published a second article “outlining the benefits of CCTV in the fight against crime and used the same photograph as from the first article” [para. 19].
About that same time, the Council decided to furnish footage of the incident to the producers of ‘Crime Beat’, a series on BBC national television with an average of 9.2 million viewers” [para. 20], on the condition that faces would be masked and no one should be identifiable.
Around March 9-11, 1996, the Applicant’s friends told him that they had seen him in trailers for an episode of ‘Crime Beat’ which was to be broadcast soon. After this, the Applicant complained to the Council about the program. At this point, the Council became aware of Applicant’s identity. The CCTV footage broadcasted Applicant’s image with a mask [para. 21].
Later on, April 25, 1996, Applicant filed a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Commission (‘BSC’) contending that his privacy was violated by the BBC featuring him in the “Crime Beat” program. The BSC considered that the BBC had indeed violated Applicant’s right to privacy by inadequately masking his identity, as the applicant had been recognized by viewers who had not seen the trailer [para. 24].
On May 1, 1996, the Applicant complained to the Independent Television Commission (‘ITC’) about the broadcast by Anglia Television. The ITC considered that Applicant’s identity was not “properly obscured and that he was readily identifiable and easily recognizable by those who knew him” [para. 26]. Anglia Television conceded that it violated Applicant’s privacy and issued an apology, after which ITC took no further action [para. 26].
On May 17, 1996, Applicant complained to the Press Complaints Commission (‘PCC’) about the articles that appeared in ‘The Yellow Advertiser’. On August 2, 1996, the PPC rejected the complaint without a hearing on the reasoning that since the events in question took place in a town high street, open to public view, it was not important whether the Applicant was identifiable, or not, in the photographs [para. 27].
Later, the Applicant applied to the High Court, for leave to apply for judicial review of the Council’s disclosure of the CCTV material on the ground that the disclosure had no basis in law” [para. 28]. The High Court rejected the application for judicial review, considering that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 served a significant purpose i.e., to empower a local authority to provide CCTV equipment to promote the prevention of crime or the welfare of victims of crime” [para. 29]. Following this, the High Court considered the Council had the power to distribute CCTV footage to media outlets. The application was subsequently dismissed by a Court of Appeals.
On April 22, 1996, the Applicant filed an application, to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), against the United Kingdom for the violation of Article 8 (right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Chamber of the Fourth Section of the ECtHR delivered the judgment. The seven-judge bench was presided over by Justice M. M. Pellonpää.
The central issue for the ECtHR was to decide, whether the disclosure of the Applicant’s footage by the Council violated the Applicant’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR. The Court first analyzed whether the Council’s decision interfered with the right to privacy of the Applicant and if yes, then whether this interference was provided by law, pursued a legitimate aim, and was necessary and proportional.
The Applicant contended that the disclosure by the Council of the relevant CCTV footage resulted in the publication and broadcasting of identifiable images of him, which constituted a disproportionate interference with his right to respect for his private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention” [para. 52]. Further, the Applicant contended notwithstanding that the CCTV footage didn’t show cutting his wrist, the footage concerns a private matter, which was disclosed without his consent or knowledge and without masking at all, or proper masking to protect his identity” [para. 54-55]. The Applicant concluded that the jurisprudence of the ECHR accepts that the occurrence of an event in a public place was only one element in the overall assessment of whether there was an interference with private life, other relevant factors including the use made of the material obtained and the extent to which it was made available to the public [para. 56].
The Government of the UK contended that the Applicant’s right to privacy had not been engaged, because the incident recorded by the CCTV, was not part of the Applicant’s private life, owing to what was filmed, the location, and the circumstances of the filming. Further, it was contended that the applicant waived his privacy by doing what he did, and where he did it, and the fact that the Applicant did not complain about being filmed, as such, amounted to an acknowledgment that the filming did not engage his right to the protection of his private life. The Government contended that the question of whether there was an interference with the Applicant’s private life was not clear-cut and submitted that certain factors should be borne in mind in this respect, including the nature of the impugned act and the parties’ conduct [para. 53].
The Court started its considerations by arguing that the concept of private life is a wider expression, not susceptible to exhaustive definition. Sexual orientation, gender identification, sexual life, personal identity, and development all are elements that fall within the scope of private life and are protected by Article 8 of the ECHR (PG and JH v. the United Kingdom 2001) [para. 57].
The Court referred to Herbecq v. Belgium (1998) to observe that the monitoring of the actions of an individual in a public place by the use of photographic equipment which does not record the visual data does not, as such, give rise to an interference with the individual’s private life. Subsequently, on the other hand, the recording of the data and the systematic or permanent nature of the record may give rise to such considerations. The Court referred to Rotaru v. Romania (2000) and Amann v. Switzerland (2000) to hold that the compilation of data by security services on particular individuals even without the use of covert surveillance methods constituted an interference with the applicants’ private lives [para. 59].
Upon analyzing the specific case, the Court noted the Applicant didn’t complain about the collection of data through a CCTV camera-monitoring system, on the contrary, the Applicant admitted that that function of the CCTV system, together with the consequent involvement of the police, may have saved his life. The Court noted that the Applicant’s contentions center on the disclosure of the CCTV footage to the public in a manner in which he could never have foreseen which gave rise to interference with his right to privacy [para. 60].
Subsequently, the Court noted several contextual elements that could point out interference with the privacy of the Applicant. The Court observed that the Applicant was recorded in a public street, where he was not participating in a public event nor he was a public figure; similarly, it was late at night and the Applicant was in a state of distress, and while he was wielding a knife, which he was never charged with any offense. The Court also made an important observation that the actual suicide attempt was neither recorded nor therefore disclosed, only the immediate aftermath was recorded and disclosed by the Council directly to the public in its CCTV News [para. 62]. Further, the Court observed that the Applicant’s identity was not adequately, or in some cases not at all, masked in the photographs and footage so published and broadcasted. Thus, the relevant moment was viewed to an extent that far exceeded any exposure to a passer-by or to security observation and to a degree surpassing that which the Applicant could possibly have foreseen when the Applicant walked in Brentwood [para. 62].
In light of these reasons, the ECtHR opined that the disclosure by the Council of the relevant footage constituted a serious interference with the applicant’s right to respect for his private life [para. 63].
Considering there was interference to the privacy of the applicant, the ECtHR analyzed through a three-part test whether this interference was in accordance with the law and pursued a legitimate aim. The Court observed that the disclosure of the footage had a valid legal basis since the Council had the power to distribute the CCTV footage to the media for transmission by virtue of Section 111(1) of the Local Government Act, 1972 Act in the discharge of their functions under Section 163 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994 Act [para. 66].
Taking into account that the measure was provided by law, the Court analyzed whether such interference pursued a legitimate aim. The Court held that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act sought to empower a local authority to provide CCTV equipment in order to promote the prevention of crime and the welfare of victims of crime. It further noted that the publicizing of information about the successful operation of the CCTV system reinforced the deterrent effect of its operation. Hence, the law mentioned above pursued a legitimate aim, i.e., safety, crime prevention, and the rights of others [para. 66].
Finally, the Court analyzed the necessity and proportionality of the interference. The Court considered, when determining this part of the test, it is important to consider factors such as the nature and seriousness of the interests at stake and the gravity of the interference [para. 77]. The Court noted that in cases concerning the disclosure of personal data, the margin of appreciation should be left to the competent national authorities in striking a fair balance between the relevant conflicting public and private interests. The Court recognized the importance of CCTV systems in preventing and deterring harmful activities, however, observed that the Council had other options available to it to allow it to achieve the same objectives. The Council could have, as the Court stated, identified the applicant through inquiries with the police and thereby obtained his consent prior to disclosure or the Council could have masked the relevant images itself [para. 80].
Considering the reasoning set forth before, the ECtHR considered that the disclosure of the footage in which the Applicant appeared was disproportionate. The lack of safeguards above-mentioned, along with the guarantees for the respect of the private life of the applicant, is enough merit to consider that, the United Kingdom violated Article 8 of the ECHR. The Court also found a breach of Article 13 as the applicant did not have access to an effective remedy in relation to the breach of his Article 8 rights. Thus, the Court awarded the Applicant 11,800 Euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage [para. 120] and 18,075 Euros for the legal costs and expenses of the domestic and Convention proceedings [para. 132].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision contracts freedom of expression by restricting the circumstances in which still photographs or footage of people in public places can be disclosed and published. It must be noted since this case involves the use of state-owned vigilance systems that the protection of privacy can also strengthen freedom of expression against the chilling effect that overly broad data collection systems can have when they go unchecked on people. The Court’s reasoning, on the other hand, upholds that certain incidents which take place in public can still fall within someone’s private life and for which they can have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
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