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Covert CCTV monitoring possible without violating an employee’s Article 8 privacy rights

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that covert surveillance to tackle workplace theft did not breach an employee’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What are the facts of the case?

Five supermarket cashiers were dismissed after hidden CCTV cameras captured them stealing. The cameras had been installed as part of an investigation into large stock discrepancies. The employees brought unfair dismissal claims which were rejected by the Spanish courts who found that, although no prior notice of the surveillance had been given (a prerequisite under Spanish law), this was justified by the employer’s reasonable suspicion of theft.

What did the ECHR decide?

The employees appealed to the ECHR, claiming that their Article 8 rights (respect for one’s private life) had been breached by the covert video surveillance.

Initially, the ECHR upheld the claims on the basis that the video surveillance had targeted all staff, rather than particular individuals, without any time limit and that the employees had not been informed of the surveillance in accordance with Spanish domestic law.

The Spanish government then asked for the case to be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR, which overturned the decision and deemed that the employer did not breach the employees’ right to privacy. It commented that there was a balance to strike between private and public interests and considered the following issues:

  • whether the employees had been notified of the possibility of video surveillance;
  • the extent of the monitoring by the employer and the degree of intrusion into the employees’ privacy;
  • whether the employer had provided legitimate reasons to justify monitoring and the extent of those reasons;
  • whether less intrusive methods of monitoring would have been possible;
  • the consequences of the monitoring for the employees; and
  • whether the employees had been provided with appropriate safeguards.

The Grand Chamber of the ECHR found that the prolonged suspicion of theft was a legitimate reason for surveillance. Furthermore, the monitoring took place in a public area and the duration was not excessive. A limited number of people viewed the recordings, which were used solely for the purposes of the investigation. The ECHR recognised that, under Spanish law, notification of surveillance is required. However, it concluded that the severity of the misconduct meant that surveillance without prior notification was in the public interest.

What can employers take from this decision?

This decision shows that it is possible to use covert monitoring in a targeted investigation. However, employers should be wary of viewing this as a green light on all surveillance, given the court’s careful consideration of all the above factors, and should maintain a strict policy that covert surveillance should only be used when the employer believes there is no less intrusive way of tackling the issue. Appropriate safeguards on use of the images should also be established.