Surveillance cameras and the "dear" neighbors

A classic of neighbour law, which occupies German courts on a daily basis, is the installation of surveillance cameras on one's own house. Neighbors often want to defend themselves against this because they are afraid of being filmed by the cameras.

In appeal proceedings, the Saarbrücken Regional Court (first instance: St. Wendel District Court) had to deal with this problem.

The case

The plaintiff was a tenant of an apartment on the ground floor. He did not have permission from his landlady to use the garden of the house.

The defendant was the owner of the neighbouring property and had installed two surveillance cameras with motion detectors behind the house on the right side of the house. These were directed at the house in which the plaintiff lived.

The plaintiff filed an application for a preliminary injunction against these cameras. That application was rejected by the General Court. The District Court of St. Wendel was convinced that there had been no violation of the general right of personality due to the blackening of the house in which the plaintiff lived in the recordings.

The plaintiff's appeal was directed against that decision.

During the appeal proceedings, the defendant installed two more cameras. These were also directed towards the plaintiff's property after the plaintiff had knocked off and damaged the previously installed cameras.

On appeal, the plaintiff requested that the defendant be ordered to remove the two cameras. In the alternative, he requested that the cameras be operated in such a way that it would not be possible to record events on his property. Furthermore, the defendant should refrain from such recordings in the future.

The admissible appeal was unsuccessful.

What does the general right of personality include?

To this end, the Saarbrücken Regional Court first stated with regard to the general right of personality that this included, inter alia, the right to informational self-determination. That right encompasses the right of the individual to decide, in principle, for himself when and within what limits personal facts are to be disclosed, and therefore, in principle, to determine for himself the disclosure and use of personal data.

In this regard, the Saarbrücken Regional Court stated that the findings of the Local Court regarding the coverage area of the cameras at that time would no longer play a role in the appeal instance, since they had been knocked off and damaged by the plaintiff.

Thus, the Saarbrücken Regional Court only dealt with the two new cameras, which only captured the defendant's own property and a small part of the garden of the plaintiff's property.

However, taking into account the fact that the garden filmed by the surveillance cameras was not rented to the plaintiff, the Saarbrücken Regional Court did not consider the plaintiff's general right of personality to be affected.

When does a so-called "surveillance pressure" arise?

Nor did anything else arise in the present case from the legal concept of the so-called "surveillance pressure". This is a claim for the removal of surveillance cameras. This claim only exists if there is a serious objective reason to fear surveillance by cameras. Such a fear is justified if it appears to be comprehensible and understandable on the basis of specific circumstances. Such a reason may be an escalating neighbor dispute or an objective suspicion based on excitatory circumstances. If such circumstances exist, the right of personality may already be impaired due to a suspicious situation.

On the other hand, the hypothetical possibility of surveillance is not sufficient.

The installation of a surveillance system on private property is therefore not unlawful if it is objectively established that public and third-party private land is not covered by it, if such detection is only possible by means of an externally perceptible technical modification of the system and if the rights of third parties are not otherwise affected.

In summary, it can be stated that a fundamental prerequisite for a violation of the general right of personality is that one must be the rights holder of a part of a property affected by a surveillance camera in the first place.

Concrete circumstances must also exist for the legal concept of "surveillance pressure" and a mere hypothetical risk of surveillance is not sufficient for the assumption of this legal figure.

Source: Saarbrücken Regional Court, judgment of 13 October 2023, file number 13 S 32/23