When you hear about hidden cameras being used in a court of law, more often than not, the HD footage that they record is being used to prove some type of crime. It’s an unfortunately common story these days: Someone suspects that their babysitter may be abusing their child or stealing from them when they’re not at home, so they set up a hidden camera inside a teddy bear to try to catch the culprit in the act. They collect the footage they need, go to the authorities, and soon, another criminal is behind bars.

But how often do you think the opposite situation occurs?

The answer is easy: More often than you think, particularly in areas like Europe. Such was the case recently in a situation in which hidden cameras weren’t used as evidence FOR a crime, but they were actually used as evidence for DISMISSAL.

The Legal Implications of Hidden Cameras

The first thing to understand about this particular situation is that, yes, the hidden cameras in question were originally set up to try to observe and stop illegal activity. More specifically, a Spanish company set up a series of hidden recording devices in a supermarket in an attempt to investigate and ultimately curb a string of robberies that they had been experiencing.

However, a number of interesting things happened next that point to the fact that the law still has a long way to go to catch up to modern technology.

First, the supermarket in question installed two types of cameras on the property for security reasons — both those that were visible and those that were not (read: hidden). Because the company had experienced losses in excess of €82,310 in just five months, they wanted to take drastic measures to stop both external AND internal theft in any way that they could.

The problem was that employees for the supermarket were only notified about the installation and placement of the visible cameras. Nobody said so much as a word about the hidden ones.

The second thing to understand is that the hidden cameras did actually work as intended — they caught employees scanning items from customers and then canceling out the purchases in the register later, pocketing the difference. They also caught a number of employees leaving the store with items that they hadn’t paid for. So, yes, a crime was going on, and yes, the cameras caught these people in the act.

But the fact that employees were never told that the cameras were there turned out to be a much bigger problem than anyone realized.

The hidden camera footage ultimately led to the firing of five employees on disciplinary grounds. Strangely, the supermarket managers seemed to know that what they were doing might not have been appropriate as they presented those employees with a settlement agreement. The supermarket would agree not to press charges, and the employees would agree not to sue for wrongful termination due to the fact that their firing was based on camera footage they didn’t know existed.

Two of the five employees refused to sign, and, interestingly, their dismissals were declared fair by a labour court. Three of the five employees signed the company and sued anyway. You can pretty much already guess what happened next.

After a prolonged legal battle, it was decided by the European Court of Human Rights that the rights of the offending employees HAD been infringed upon. Specifically, they had been denied their right to respect for privacy and human dignity — all because they hadn’t been told that the cameras were being installed at all.

If the supermarket had just told them about the cameras, two things likely would have happened. One, they would have stopped stealing altogether — thus solving the problem. Two, they may have continued stealing and still been caught, thus getting fired in a legally protected way — thus solving the problem.

What we’re left with is a murky third situation where something illegal did happen, but now a retailer can’t do anything about it, all because they chose to take the term “hidden camera” a bit too literally. It will be truly interesting to see how these types of incidents play out across the rest of the world over the next few years.