Privacy complaints over flat’s CCTV fall on deaf ears

Resident finds no assistance when faced with invasive CCTV in Housing Authority apartment block’s common areas

Pembroke resident Mariella Caruana has vented her frustration about an issue that has plagued her since she bought her apartment from the Housing Authority in 2006.

Shortly after she had finally moved into the block in 2007, another resident in the block installed security cameras overlooking a common area just outside his doorway. 

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the beginning, thinking perhaps he had harmless intentions,” she said, adding however, that when she joined some other residents to ask him to remove the cameras, things started to turn nasty.

Caruana explained that the man in question had installed cameras both on the door-frames of his apartment, and over the entrance of his garage, but that in both cases, the cameras overlooked common areas.

“He gets to observe everyone’s comings and goings,” she said, explaining that the cameras in the garage allowed him a view of the entrance and exit of the garage compound and the corridor and lift area, and adding that she was genuinely concerned about the reasons why he was doing so. 

After failing in their appeal to their neighbour, the residents of Block A11 had to seek assistance from the authorities, starting with the Housing Authority itself, from whom she had purchased the apartment.

“Common areas of the block are excluded from this purchase and remain exclusive property of the Housing Authority,” she said, quoting the contract signed for the purchase of the apartment, and explaining why she contacted them.

However, despite this information, Caruana was told by the authority that action to remove the installations was not in its remit, given that the individual apartments had been sold off.

“The cases of camera installations are new for the Housing Authority and procedures are still being set up in collaboration with the Police Force,” the Housing Authority said in reply to questions from Malta Today.

“Such cases are only investigated when the cameras are installed in the common parts and when these are installed in blocks that are administered by the Housing Authority,” it added.

The HA said that in such cases, it usually took action when a legal letter was sent to remove the cameras. “In this particular case, since the cameras are installed in a block of apartments that are sold, the Housing Authority cannot take any action. These are not Housing Authority properties,” it concluded.

The authority did not comment as to the fact that the contract of sale states that common areas remain its property, and quoted another part of the same contract: “Ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of these areas should depend on the occupants of the block,” it quoted, by way of justifying its inaction following complaints from the residents themselves. 

The authority insisted that ‘maintenance’, includes installing CCTV cameras.

Caruana’s next port of call, the police, did not turn out to be of much more help, but she finally filed an official complaint on 25 March, 2015, with a further reminder in September, but, she said, nothing else followed. 

“I’ve grown increasingly exasperated at the inaction and at how the authorities are passing the buck,” she said.

Pursued by this newspaper about the usual protocol and procedures related to the unwanted installation of CCTV cameras, the police said that CCTV cameras were not under their remit, but asked why the complaint made by Caruana and other inhabitants of the block was not followed up, the police chose to remain mum, claiming that the request was still being processed, weeks after it was sent. 

Can residents take it upon themselves to install cameras in their apartment blocks?

According to the Condominium Act, in the absence of an administrator appointed by the residents themselves or the owner of the block, the decisions taken by the majority should be respected above all else. 

“Where a tenant occupying the separate unit as his ordinary residence, unless he is a tenant in Government property. . . wishes to install or erect, at his own expense, any facility… but either the owner, or the meeting of the condomini, refuses the relative consent… the tenant may refer the matter to arbitration…” the act reads. 

Caruana told Malta Today that none of the residents had ever agreed to having the cameras set up, and that the Housing Authority had informed them that it hadn’t given anyone such permission, a fact the authority did not confirm with this paper. 

“Besides the obvious safety concerns,” Caruana said, pointing out that the tenant had had some previous brushes with the law, “there are also issues of privacy.”

MaltaToday also contacted the Data Protection Commissioner to shed some light on whether it could protect the privacy of Caruana and the other residents, but the Commissioner’s office pointed out that acts of perceived harassment should be reported to the police. 

It explained that if an individual decided to install a CCTV camera “for a personal reason where the angle of vision is limited to the person’s property or the perimeter of such property,” then it was within their rights. However, it added; 

 “When a third party feels that his/her privacy rights are violated with the installation of such camera since it may capture an area which goes beyond the person’s property, such continuous monitoring constitutes an act of harassment and should be reported to the Police, who are the competent authorities to investigate similar cases.” 

The commissioner further explained that under the Data Protection Act, the administrator was the only one authorised to install CCTV cameras given that they could establish a clear and justifiable purpose which will legitimise the installation of the CCTV camera, (for instance, for the security of premises and persons authorised to gain access to the common parts). 

It further added that the submission of a notification to the data protection commissioner was necessary, as well as the affixing of visible notices in the common areas.

“Another condition is that the recorded images are only retained for a period of not longer than seven days, and that a privacy policy is developed to allow all members to access the data,” it added, stressing that necessary safeguards should be put in place to protect the recordings against unlawful forms of processing, and that any requests for subject access are facilitated.

 Having said all this however, the commissioner pointed out that it was not within its remit to decide whether the camera should be installed or otherwise in the common areas of a block of apartments.  

“This consideration is being made primarily on the fact that the applicable law is the Condominium Act which establishes, inter alia, the members’ voting rules when it comes to making an alternation or an innovation to a common area,” it said.

It added that where any particular resident is in disagreement with any alternation being introduced to the common parts, a claim is usually made before the Malta Arbitration Centre, which it defines as “the proper body to settle similar (domestic) disputes.”