Machine translations by Deepl

From smart doorbell to modern car, filming is almost always and everywhere

These days, just try to get from A to B unseen. The collective field of vision of the gigantic number of government and private security cameras is hard to escape. For functionality reasons, even modern cars film like crazy. What about privacy?

This article in five points:

  • The number of ways of filming in public spaces has increased dramatically in recent years. For instance, there is a lot of fuss about smart doorbells and the deployment of drones, while modern cars are also filming their surroundings on all sides. Where some feel safer because of the proliferation of cameras, others feel especially watched.
  • People have the right to move freely in public spaces. That right can be restricted by unlawful camera surveillance. Just filming the public road is therefore not allowed; you need a justification. In many cases, this is lacking.
  • Cameras in cars are used for the proper functioning of all kinds of on-board driver assistance systems. The same rules apply to those cameras as to cameras that people install around their homes, for example. Thus, the owner or driver of the vehicle decides whether the cameras are switched on or off. That person is also legally responsible for the images the car takes. The images remain local, i.e. in the vehicle (or, as its extension, the user's smartphone), and - in principle and in the EU at least - are not shared with the car manufacturer or third parties.
  • So that drivers do not get behind the wheel drunk or fall asleep during a drive, from the middle of this year, new European legislation makes it mandatory in the latest models to also film the driver of the car. If the camera detects that you are not paying attention, you will be signalled to stay alert.
  • Meanwhile, some parties within the automotive industry are betting on facial recognition technology based on which preference settings in a vehicle can be automatically adjusted.

Thou shalt not just film the public road, nor point your camera at another person's private property. The General Data Protection Regulation (AVG) and the Personal Data Authority (AP) are clear about this. Yet a lot of people in the Netherlands do not comply. Among them are owners of doorbells equipped with a camera. Over 1.2 million households have such a smart doorbell.

Smart doorbells have been in the spotlight again in recent weeks. They give many a sense of security, because isn't it nice to be able to see on your smartphone who is at your door or what is going on on the pavement in front of your house? At least as many others, on the other hand, feel their freedom of movement has been compromised and feel spied on. They feel actually more unsafe by all the cameras. After all, what happens to the images? In any case, these are widely shared in neighbourhood app groups, which regularly leads to (unjustified) suspicions and mutual tensions.

Once people put up cameras around their homes, they not only keep an eye on their own property, but almost always on (the property of) neighbours and other passers-by as well. If the images do not meet a certain level of expectation, distrust is the first thing that sets in. Unknown persons walking by ('he was wearing a hoodie!') or, for example, a dilapidated van driving down the street at unusual times ('that's the third time now!'), are quickly identified as suspicious.

As a 'complement' to the numerous government security cameras in public spaces, these 'private cameras' also bring us one step closer to perfecting the almost inescapable surveillance company. This, incidentally, to the satisfaction of the police, who regularly forcibly requisition footage of an accident or crime for criminal prosecution, and encourage people to register their security cameras and smart doorbells with the police database Camera in Picture. If you refuse to cooperate with a requisition request, you may be prosecuted yourself.

Unlawful images 'laundering'

Well regarded, unlawfully shot images are laundered upon requisition, and citizens and businesses are increasingly becoming extensions of the police and judiciary in this respect, warned Privacy First last week to several media outlets. Earlier we made known not to be against camera surveillance a priori, but to be concerned about the risks involved, especially if such surveillance is not carried out according to the rules.

Putting up a camera that films the public road and 'en passant' the (over)neighbour's house and garden is not necessarily illegal, but you have to have a justification for it under the Constitution. For instance, someone living in a street plagued by drug-related fireworks attacks may point to a serious security problem. If you are unable to provide such a ground, then you are acting unlawfully, so Leeuwarden court confirmed last December in a case that revolved around a camera that was supposed to monitor a car from a house, but each time also captured the neighbours on the street.

Of course, this does not mean that people may not still feel their privacy and freedom of movement violated if they are being filmed lawfully, either by the government or by a private individual. Either way, it is always the responsibility of the owner of the camera to adjust it correctly and respect other people's privacy as much as possible. If you process the images and thus the personal data of others, then under the AVG you must also have a legitimate interest at.

Cars film 360 degrees around the clock

The number of ways of filming in public spaces is increasing. Consider the use of drones by both private individuals and emergency services, but especially cameras in cars. Modern cars are equipped on all sides with advanced cameras those dozens to as many hundreds of metres away can see and provide a 360-degree view. Cameras read traffic signs and are crucial for the proper functioning of all kinds of driver assistance systems such as lane-keeping and parking assistance. At the same time, for secret services and investigative agencies, they make cars a perfect tool for tracking spy and to surveillance.

For cameras built into a car, the same rules apply as for cameras people install around their homes, for example. Guidelines regarding connected cars based on the AVG state the following: the owner or driver of the vehicle decides whether the cameras are turned on or off. That person is also legally responsible for the images taken by the car. The images remain local, i.e. in the vehicle (or, as its extension, the user's smartphone), and are not shared with the car manufacturer or third parties. This processing falls under the AVG exception of domestic or personal use. The AVG does dictate that the manufacturer is responsible for the proper security of images within the vehicle. Once camera images leave the vehicle and are shared, possibly in the event of an accident, the AVG does apply in full because data processing is then involved. The main question then is who determines or triggers this sharing. Is it the driver, the manufacturer or a third party, for example the police who requisitions the images?

Camera footage stays in the car

An investigation by the AP saw Tesla felt compelled to do so last year changing camera settings. Of that particular brand, the watchdog investigated the so-called 'Sentry Mode': the use of exterior cameras to protect Tesla models from theft or vandalism. When Sentry Mode was switched on, the cameras filmed everything and everyone around the parked Tesla continuously by default, and one hour of footage was kept inside the car at a time. In short, the public road and passers-by were filmed, as were, for example, houses and - as far as possible - living rooms. An unholy idea and, moreover, illegal. In any case, it had nothing to do with the proper functioning of the vehicle or road safety (justifications).

Due to software updates, the cameras in Tesla's have been off by default since the AP's investigation. And if the user does turn them on, they save one minute of footage by default and up to 10 minutes if desired in memory from a formatted USB stick that you have to plug into the dashboard yourself. Meanwhile, when the cameras are on, the headlights also give a special signal so that passers-by can know they are being filmed. Something that was previously nowhere to be inferred and of which few people were aware. In many cases, by the way, passers-by will still not know, even with other brands.

Tesla stresses that video recordings are not sent to the factory or headquarters. Video recordings are not (in principle) forwarded to any manufacturer, as people may be inclined to think in relation to connected cars. Firstly, it is not allowed under the AVG, secondly, it is pointless in most cases and thirdly, it is also technically feasible only on a small scale. Continuously transmitting high-resolution images of large numbers of cars to the cloud is not a do-anything: so much data you simply do not get over the air (certainly not in real-time). And that's quite apart from the fact that both the data transfer and storage of so much data would cost loads of money. Car companies are not going to do that.

Against this backdrop, it was quite remarkable when news broke last year that Tesla employees spent extended periods of time collecting all sorts of images of US Tesla drivers appeared to have shared with each other. Images (short clips of relatively small file size) that in some cases were quite spicy in nature. So those did just end up at Tesla. Apparently, the brand keeps or maintained different institutions in the United States. In terms of privacy differences US and EU considerably from each other. What is established practice there may not necessarily be so here, and a wrongdoing there does not necessarily mean a wrongdoing here.

Difficult to compare

In terms of privacy (and thus, for example, the deployment of cameras), it is unfortunately not exactly easy to compare car companies. Just quickly consulting the privacy statement of this or that make or of this or that model is out of the question: those statements are (as a non-owner of a particular vehicle) often very difficult or sometimes not at all to find. You usually end up on and also no further than the privacy page of a car manufacturer's website, which is completely different from a vehicle's privacy statement.

However, it is clear to us that several brands allow you to retrieve, view and save a vehicle's (usually encrypted) camera images (from inside and outside) to your smartphone. Via the My BMW app, for example three times every two hours. Other brands do address the use of cameras (Volvo), but say nothing about what happens to the images or what the privacy situation is in that respect. Still other manufacturers don't say anything about it at all (Ford).

Audi is leading by example in this respect. The privacy terms of that brand can be found, and furthermore, in respect of on-board cameras, show how technology can be deployed without compromising privacy. The terms and conditions explain in detail - but summarised very briefly here - that the images are not stored, only analysed. The image evaluation software determines distances from stationary objects (e.g. crash barriers) or moving objects (e.g. vehicles in front). In other words, reality is converted into technical measurement values. Measurement values that help the vehicle park or automatically accelerate or decelerate in traffic jams. The values are stored in a volatile memory for a few seconds. No conclusions about the identity of people or vehicles (e.g. faces or registration numbers) can be drawn from this.

Drivers are filmed from the inside

So that motorists do not get behind the wheel drunk or fall asleep during a drive, based on new European legislation from the middle of this year in the latest models also the driver of the car filmed. This is already the case for a number of models.

A camera right in front of the driver's seat and above the windscreen checks the position of your head, whether you look to the left, right, down, up or ahead (through your sunglasses or not), whether you keep your eyes closed for an unusually long time (and may have fallen asleep or passed out), whether you are blinded, and, for example, whether you are looking at your phone or distracted by something else. If the camera detects that you are not paying attention, you will be signalled to stay alert. If it is detected that you are no longer able to drive, the car will slow down and - as best or worst as it can given the traffic situation - try to park and call the emergency centre if necessary (eCall).

There are cars with a little panel you can slide over the camera in case you don't want to be filmed (even though such filming benefits your own safety and that of other road users). Given the new European regulations, it remains to be seen whether this will remain the case, and whether you can, for example, cover the camera without being reminded with, for example, an annoying sound that the camera really should have a clear view. Just like you hear irritating beeps when you drive (away) without putting your seatbelt on. The same can possibly be expected if you wear a cap, for example, and the camera cannot see properly Whether you keep your attention on the road.

Incidentally, it is also quite conceivable that in many cars this safety system will (initially) be tuned too 'nervously'. That motorists, to their annoyance, will receive a signal every so often telling them to pay attention, when in fact they are already doing just that.

Again, for completeness, let's take a look at what Audi's privacy statement has to say. In summary, the infrared-lit camera only films the driver's head and cannot be pointed anywhere else. The driver's live images are not stored, only in real-time analysed using image evaluation software. Among other things, that software measures head position and gaze direction to determine the driver's fitness to drive. The resulting abstract technical readings are collected anonymously and are not linked to (other data of) the person in question (but are nevertheless biometric data, we note). These measurement values are stored in a small number of local memory locations so that when a new journey is made, the system can be reactivated as soon as possible and the measurement values can serve as a basic reference. The memory locations are overwritten as soon as they are full.

Adjusting preference settings based on facial recognition

Not every brand is as reticent as Audi. The car industry wouldn't be the car industry either if there wasn't a full commitment around cameras to innovation and complementary services. Some progressive car companies and suppliers like Bosch, Faraday Future and Harman are working on facial recognition technology based on which a variety of preferred settings can be automatically adjusted in the car. Face ID has long been a common technology in mobile phones, among others, but in terms of applications, it is expected to be taken to the next level in cars in the coming years. Of course, motorists are free to use it or not. The main concern here is whether the images and/or data derived from them will be sufficiently protected against hacks, or may otherwise fall into the hands of third parties.

Next time: connected cars and smart mobility.