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Barking dogs and listening devices Joanna Hayward
17 March 2016

cerebus

Barking dogs can be a real neighbourhood nightmare. Dog owners have a legal obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure their dog’s barking doesn’t cause a nuisance to others.

The Dog Control Act 1996 gives some fairly strong powers to deal with this problem. Dog control officers can enter private property (but not a house) to inspect the dog’s living conditions. They can also serve notice on the dog’s owner requiring them to deal with the problem or move the dog. If the dog owner doesn’t comply, the dog control officer can take the dog into custody, but has to use a warrant if they need to enter a house to do so.

It’s been reported that Christchurch City Council’s dog control unit has been using listening devices to monitor dog barking, generally with the homeowner’s consent. Using environmental devices to assess and monitor a problem through the collection of information can be a good idea. It can help diagnose the nature and extent of the problem and then help select an appropriate response.

However, in one case, the council’s dog control unit placed a listening device in the garden of a Christchurch couple. The couple were shocked to discover the device under a shrub. 

This instance highlights the need to be mindful of the potential privacy impacts of using environmental devices to collect data.

Those privacy impacts can usually be managed by getting the consent of the people likely to be affected - in this case, the couple whose dog was being monitored. But without consent or awareness, the monitoring could inadvertently collect personal information about the couple and their family, friends or visitors.

Councils in Britain got into strife some years ago for secretly spying on local residents to catch dog fouling and rubbish infringements, leading to clarification of their powers. Although there is a public interest in catching infringers, the level of surveillance used was seen by the public as disproportionate to the level of offence being investigated.

In New Zealand, the Privacy Act’s information privacy principles provide a general framework:

  • Principle 3 says that an agency collecting personal information has to make sure the individual is aware that it’s being collected and why
  • Principle 4 says that an agency can’t collect personal information in a manner that is unfair or unreasonably intrudes on the individual’s personal affairs, or in a way that’s unlawful.

As well as the Privacy Act, other laws could be relevant to operating a device, like the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 and the Bill of Rights Act 1990, and civil law that limits privacy intrusions.

It’s worth keeping these in mind when operating any device that has the capacity to collect people’s information, be it a smartphone, drone or CCTV camera.

If the device is being used lawfully for personal or family purposes, there’s no issue under the Privacy Act, as long as it’s not being used to collect or use information offensively, in other words, to cause harm to others. But the use of devices by businesses or public authorities in a way that could potentially collect personal information needs careful management and oversight. 

Image credit: Heracles capturing a two-headed Cerberus

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