London

With a neighbour's camera pointed at his backyard, this Londoner wants a tougher security camera bylaw

A London man is calling on city council to beef up its bylaws to address the problem of security cameras that can capture images of neighbours' backyards.

Police, bylaw enforcement have been unable to address the issue

It's too small to see in this photo but a security camera is placed under the roof line of David Johnstone's neighbour and is able to capture images of a portion of his backyard. Johnstone has written to the city, asking politicians to create a bylaw that would make it illegal to use security cameras capable of peering onto private property. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

David Johnstone's position is simple: He doesn't think his neighbour should be allowed to capture images of Johnstone's backyard using a security camera. 

But that's what's been happening since December. Now after trying to get the issue addressed by police and the City of London's bylaw enforcement department, Johnstone is calling on London council to draft a bylaw that specifically bars private security cameras from capturing images of a neighbour's private property, specifically their backyards. 

"[My neighbour] can literally monitor me 24 hours a day, seven days a week and I think my right to privacy trumps his right to protect his back shed," said Johnstone. "I don't believe a camera overlooking my backyard is something that I want and I don't think it's something anyone wants in the city of London."

Johnstone's push for new rules around security cameras is a by-product of a dispute he had with the neighbour over the location of a backyard fence. Johnstone's backyard and his neighbour's share a common property line on Crosscreek Crescent, a subdivision of single-family homes off of Highbury Avenue north of Huron Street. 

The neighbour's rear lot line borders the side of Johnstone's backyard.  

The dispute about an encroaching fence has since been resolved in small claims court but Johnstone says once papers were served in December of last year, his neighbour placed a security camera just under the roof line of the two-storey house. The camera points away from the neighbour's house and toward Johnstone's backyard. 

As part of the court process to resolve the fence issue, Johnstone was provided with an image taken by his neighbour's camera. 

You can see it here:

This image shows the view of the security camera that David Johonstone's neighbour set up. Johnstone's backyard is at the top of the frame, the glass doors in the top left corner lead into his kitchen. (Submitted by David Johnstone)

The camera's wide-angle lens captures a portion of Johnstone's backyard at the top of the frame along with large swaths of properties located on either side of the house where the camera is placed. 

CBC News has decided not to identify the neighbour. 

"I know that I'm being watched in my backyard," said Johnstone. "Those images can be live streamed or shared on social media in an instant. I don't know if anyone in the city of London wants to be walking around in their backyard and feel that at any moment if they make a misstep, they're gonna be the new meme on Facebook."

CBC News spoke to the neighbour, who didn't want to be interviewed but did provide this statement: 

"The security cameras were installed due to an incident at my front door and multiple vehicle break-ins. I installed the security cameras to protect my family and property. The London Police have reviewed the security cameras and everything was acceptable. If the current bylaws are changed or amended, I will abide by them." 

The neighbour also told CBC News he's not willing to remove the camera or adjust its angle so that it only captures images of his own backyard. 

City bylaws, police couldn't help

Johnstone called London Police Service about the camera. He said they interviewed his neighbour and determined that because the camera wasn't being used for anything illegal, they didn't break any laws. But Johnstone says the main issue is about protecting privacy, not preventing voyeurism. 

Johnstone has written a letter to London city council's Community and Protective Services Committee, asking politicians to create a bylaw that specifically governs the use of residential video surveillance with an eye to protecting homeowners' privacy. 

"Voyeurism requires a sexual component, and that's not what's happening here," he said.

The city has a 2002 fortifications bylaw which bars "excessive protective elements" on buildings. It was mainly aimed at structures where illegal activity was taking place, including clubhouses used by biker gangs. For example it prevents the placement of armour, alarms or traps around a building. 

Difficult to enforce

London's fortifications bylaw does list as "excessive fortifications" cameras and "devices capable of permitting either stationary or scanned viewing or listening, beyond the perimeter of the land.​​​​​​"​

The city gets a handful of complaints about neighbours' cameras every year. Orest Katolyk heads up bylaw enforcement for the city of London and says the real problem has been enforcement. 

Bylaw officers do investigate complaints about neighbour's camera pointed at their property, but Katolyk said cameras can easily be tilted to appease bylaw officers then shifted back again after they leave.

As cameras have become more common and sophisticated, the enforcement challenge has grown and the fortifications bylaw is no longer used as a tool to address issues like the one Johnstone faces.

"With technology today, the cameras' angle can be controlled via cellphone," said Katolyk. 

Katolyk said if council wants the bylaw changed, he'd be willing to work with city politicians to create one that would address complaints like Johnstone's. 

In his letter to council, Johnstone touts Hamilton's fortification bylaw, which has wording that bans the use of security cameras that can observe "beyond the perimeter of the land actually owned, leased or rented by the occupant." 

It's been interpreted to mean that front-door cameras could be considered illegal if they can capture images of the public sidewalk. 

Johnstone said his main concern is about cameras that peer into backyards, not front yards. 

"There's a higher expectation of privacy there," he said. "We are on cameras in all kinds of public spaces. The one space we have left is our own homes and our own backyards."

Johnstone's letter is an item for direction on the agenda of today's meeting of the Community and Protective Services Committee.

 

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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