With increasingly sophisticated security systems having more capacity at a lower cost than ever before many strata and community title schemes are installing security systems and surveillance devices such as keyed swipe passes, smart lighting and closed circuit television (CCTV) systems. What many schemes do not consider is the use of these systems and their legality. Privacy is, rightly, a key concern of many lot owners and occupiers.

The Right to Privacy … is limited

Unfortunately, in NSW there is no general common law right to privacy. There have been two High Court cases where the existence of such a general right was discussed and held not to exist. Although the High Court in Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats [2001] HCA 63 left open the development of a concept of common law privacy a general right to privacy has not been established. There is however legislation that should be considered when an owners corporation wishes to install any surveillance system.

The Strata Schemes Management Act 1996 (NSW) (the Act) does not specifically address the power of an owners corporation to install security systems on the common property. However, an owner corporations can, and should, use its power pursuant to section 47 of the Act to pass a by-law regulating the installation, maintenance and operation of any security system (including any surveillance system).

The Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW) (the SD Act) regulates the use of listening and surveillance devices. While there is a general prohibition on the use of listening devices to record private conversation, section 8 of the SD Act does not prohibit the use of optical surveillance devices (think CCTV) provided that there is either express or implied consent from the owner of the land on which the device is installed.

Note that if the common property, or part of it, is also used as a workplace say for a building manager, then the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW) also applies and cameras must be clearly visible with signage warning of the surveillance at each entrance.

CCTV Systems

CCTV cameras that do not record sounds can be installed on the common property with the consent of the owners corporation however any recording of private conversations is not permitted. If your common property area is a workplace then all cameras need to be clearly visible and there must be signage advising of the system at each entrance. We recommend signage regardless as it can act as a deterrent.

We also recommend that the placement of any CCTV cameras is carefully considered. In one scheme, while there were genuine security concerns giving rise to the need for surveillance, one of the external cameras unfortunately captured a bedroom window which impacted on how the occupier used the room and caused the occupant serious (and justified) concern about why that camera had been positioned in that way. The moral is that camera placement should be carefully considered.

When installing a CCTV system, we recommend that the owners corporation needs to consider who has access to footage, where the footage is kept, how it is kept (i.e. is it securely held?) and the process for obtaining access to the footage and then to ensure this is encapsulated in a by-law in addition to authorising any necessary services agreements required to install, maintain and operate the CCTV system.

Swipe or Key Cards

While swipe cards or keys may not seem like a controversial security system, they can be. Take for example a strata scheme where the Chairperson decided to “police” the use of car parking lots and where the car spaces were held separately to residential lots with no restrictions on the use of the car space lots. In breach of the Act, the Chairperson decided that if the owners of the car space lots were not residents then they should not be allowed to use their car spaces. The Chairperson instructed the security firm to deactivate the key passes of the car space lot owners who were not residents preventing them from accessing their lots and any common areas of building.

In this instance a clearly worded by-law could have assisted by either setting out a process by which security cards could be de-activated or by establishing who had authority to instruct that security cards / keys be deactivated or restricted (preferably the strata manager or the building manager). Provided adequate controls were established in the by-law it should have been sufficient to prevent the misuse of the security keys.

If your strata scheme is considering installing a security or surveillance system then we recommend they seek legal advice tailored to its needs.

Allison Benson

Legal Practitioner Director

P: 02 4032 7060

E: allison@kerinbensonlawyers.com.au