Video Surveillance of Public Places by Private Individuals

Generally speaking, private individuals are not permitted to operate CCTV systems on public property. There are some exceptions to this rule, but only in a very limited number of cases.  

A CCTV system that monitors a public area in order to safeguard private interests will record images of countless people and thus infringe their rights to privacy. The persons concerned often have no choice but to enter the monitored area, and are therefore compelled to accept this infringement of their rights to privacy. This is difficult to justify by private interests.

1. Interest in crime prevention: the preservation of security and order in public areas is not the responsibility of private individuals, but a task for the police. For this reason, protecting his or her own security is not a legitimate reason for a private individual to monitor a public area.

2. Other interests: e.g. webcams for the purposes of advertising or entertainment. For such private interests the infringement of privacy rights caused by video surveillance is a step too far, and the interest in safeguarding rights to privacy has priority.

As a result, private CCTV systems in public areas are normally regarded as an excessive and unlawful measure and their installation is prohibited.

Examples:

As her property has been vandalised by passers-by on a number of occasions, a house owner wants to install CCTV cameras to monitor the street outside her house. However, the house owner is not permitted to carry out this type of video surveillance herself, as in her case this is the responsibility of the police.

A hotelier sets up a webcam to film the grounds of his hotel. As his interest in doing this does not outweigh the interest in protecting the privacy of those filmed, filming is only permitted if people appearing on the webcam are made unrecognisable and the privacy of the residents of neighbouring houses is guaranteed.

There are two possible exceptions to this rule:

1. When legitimate video surveillance of private property is conducted, images of public areas are also recorded. If the extent of this intrusion is negligible and the surveillance of the private property would otherwise be impossible, common sense dictates that surveillance will normally be allowed.  

Example:

A bank installs a CCTV camera to monitor its ATMs. In the recordings, a small section of the street outside the building can also be seen. As there is an overriding private interest in monitoring the ATMs and surveillance could not be carried out without filming the street, this is permitted.

2. A private individual who wants to monitor a public area for security reasons contacts the relevant authority (local commune, police, cantonal authorities) and obtains permission to carry out the required video surveillance measures himself. As the cantons are responsible for regulating video surveillance in public areas, confirmation must first of all be obtained from the cantonal authorities as to whether such an arrangement is permitted.

Example:

The house owner who is a victim of vandalism in the example above enters into an agreement with the local police under which she monitors the street outside her property using CCTV.

If a private individual carries out video surveillance with the permission of the responsible authorities, the Data Protection Act (FADP) still applies, so the video surveillance must be carried out according to the principles applicable to data processing (see our leaflet). The Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) remains responsible for supervising compliance with the FADP. 

Last update: September 2011

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