Are Home Security Cameras Legal? An Overview of What Is and Is Not Allowable Under State and Federal Law

You’re just getting ready to go to bed. It’s been a long day, but it’s all over now. You can put your mind at ease now – or at least, that’s what you think. While you’re asleep, a burglar is busy at work looting your home. They move quickly and quietly, and by the time you wake up, your downstairs will be stripped bare.

You’ve just woken up in bed with a start to the sound of someone pounding at your door. You sit up, seized with indecision and fear, wondering what you should do. You hear the sound of glass shattering—footsteps—the clattering of your valuables being ripped from their proper place.

You don’t have any time to sleep tonight. You’re out on the town with friends, or perhaps out of town altogether on a much-needed vacation. Whatever the case may be, homelife is the last thing on your mind – until you get an emergency call from the police. There’s been a break-in at your home. Not only is your evening spoiled, you’re now stuck wondering what the burglars might have taken, and what condition your home will be in when you return.

You’ve just woken up after a good night’s sleep and step outside to get the paper the way you do every day. Unfortunately, the second you open the door, you realize that today is anything but an ordinary day. Your home has been vandalized from top to bottom and your exterior smashed and defaced with lewd or bigoted symbols and messages. Whether your home has been targeted as part of a hate crime or “just” an act of vandalism, you’ll now be forced to pay thousands of dollars to fix this property damage, to say nothing of the damage done to your family’s psyche and sense of safety.

There is any number of different ways in which your home might be burglarized or vandalized, but whatever the motivation might have been, you’re now left having to deal with this nightmare scenario. It’s not just smashed windows or stolen property but your peace of mind that’s at stake.

Trying to avoid that nightmare scenario has long been one of the prime motivations for homemakers to look into acquiring security cameras. Not only can they help catch vandals or burglars in the act, but they can likewise serve as a powerful deterrent. Criminals have countless potential homes for them to target – they very rarely want to take the risk of targeting a home that looks like it’s well-protected, let alone sporting 24/7 CCTV surveillance.

That being said, the question remains – what are the most effective ways of setting up security cameras on your premises, and how can you balance your desire for effective monitoring with what’s legal? After all, there are laws about what homeowners can and cannot do when it comes to recording one another.

This quick guide can help take you through the logistics and legality of home security cameras.

Why It Matters

First, it’s worth taking a step back to recognize why these laws exist in the first place. Not only can this help us appreciate the necessity more, but, in recognizing the intent of the laws ahead of time, you might be able to avoid some of the most common misconceptions and missteps when it comes to implementing security cameras in the home.

The most important reason for laws governing the use of home security cameras is, of course, that we don’t want to wind up living in an Orwellian police state. While you may think that this only applies to the state, the fact of the matter is that it applies to everyone. Indeed, Orwell’s 1984 features not just the state itself surveilling citizens, but fellow citizens spying and informing on one another. Privacy is a luxury that doesn’t exist in the world of 1984, and it’s one we need to protect ourselves from Orwellian state of surveillance and suspicion.

So, what does that mean for your home security camera setup? Simply put, you need to be sure that your cameras are set up in such a way as not to invade what might legally be reasonably construed to be someone else’s right to privacy. That will change from state to state, as we’ll see. Even so, you’ll want to bear that in mind as an overarching guideline going forward.

What’s Generally Allowed

Before we get into some of the state-by-state particulars, let’s deal with some of the broader generalized rules and trends when it comes what’s legal and what isn’t when it comes to home security cameras. Generally, setting up private and even hidden security cameras in your own home is legal. There are some permutations to that, which we’ll get to later on, but on the whole, recording people with a security camera installed on your own property is allowed under the law.

That said, the placement of those cameras matters. It is a lot easier to get away with installing and operating cameras that monitor activity inside your home and property boundaries than it is to do so for cameras set up to face out into public areas. You can probably already guess why – there is, on average, far more leeway given with respect to setting up security cameras when the area being monitored is strictly your own property.

When the property (and thus people) being monitored involve areas and individuals that are either on someone else’s property or else in a public space (for example, a public street) things start to get far more complicated.

A good example of what is generally considered a “proper” usage of hidden security cameras on one’s premises is a so-called “nanny cam.” These are hidden cameras which parents can have installed in their baby’s bedroom so as to allow the surveillance of the room while they are away at work and a nanny or other caretaker is tending to their baby. The reason for such cameras is apparent – so that parents can make sure that their child is not being abused by a caretaker and, if such abuse does occur, so they have legal proof when taking their case to court.

Because the cameras are within their property and have a clear right to install and use them.

What’s Generally Disallowed

With that in mind, let’s go over a few things that are far more likely to be considered illegal.

As demonstrated above, there is a clear split in considering camera operating rights when it comes to recording individuals on private vs. public property and in situations where a reasonable expectation of privacy should exist. As such, it is typically illegal to station your cameras such that they are mostly or entirely monitoring public areas or, worse, individuals on private property that is not your own. The same rights to private property and privacy that protect your right to operate cameras on your premises protect others from your covertly monitoring them.

You wouldn’t want to be spied upon by others, and so it is unfair and thus typically illegal for you to arrange your cameras so as to “monitor” your neighbor’s backyard, bedroom, or other areas of their private property.

Even more serious is that restriction concerning “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Placing a hidden camera in someone’s bedroom or bathroom, for example, so as to secretly record individuals in the nude or otherwise obtain illicit material is illegal – and an extremely serious offense. Here again, the question of “intent” looms large. Where the intent of a “nanny cam” is clear, hidden cameras such as these at best have no clear intent and, at worst, are utilized with an intent which does not involve “security” but simply violating someone’s right to privacy for your own illicit ends.

There are state as well as federal laws against filming others for purposes of “malicious intent,” such as trying to obtain blackmail or pornographic material.

It’s morally reprehensible, legally wrong, and can land you a hefty fine or even potential prison time of the offense is serious enough.

Audio vs. Video

One of the trickier aspects of operating home security cameras is the distinction between audio vs. video recording. The primary exception to that rule is for state and federal law enforcement officials to record information via wiretapping, an act which both requires legal approval from a judge and is thus not allowable for private citizens. As a rule of thumb, it is often harder to legally record and use audio than it is video. Much of what governs the law surrounding audio recording is laid out in US Code Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 119, part of which reads:

“Any person who intentionally…manufactures, assembles, possesses, or sells any electronic, mechanical, or other device, knowing or having reason to know that the design of such device renders it primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

US Code Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 119

For that reason, with very specific exceptions, it is nearly always safer from a legal standpoint to purchase home security camera systems that are video-only.

One vs. Two-Party Consent

It is here that we start to run into some of those state-by-state differences. When it comes to recording audio, some states allow for One-Party Consent, while others require Two-Party Consent. This distinction is, as you might expect, between whether only one person in the conversation needs to consent to its being recorded, or if two parties need to consent.

While there are many permutations depending on the circumstances, in Two-Party Consent states, two parties consenting is the minimum for a conversation to be legally recorded. These states are typically far more restrictive as to what type of audio recording is allowed, for what purposes, what type of warnings need to be given, and what constitutes consent.

The following states require Two-Party Consent:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington

All other states, as well as the District of Columbia, utilize One-Party Consent.

Some Recording Rules of Thumb

That said, these are broad generalizations. There are many differences that arise in terms of private vs. public settings, as well as the method of recording used. Some examples include:

A division Between Public vs. Private Communication

As a rule, conversations that can be considered to fall under the purview of “public communication” are more permissible to record than “private communication,” which often requires more consent, especially in Two-Party Consent states. Think of this as the difference between using your iPhone to record public events live as they happen and setting up a Nixonian system of secret cameras and microphones on private property used by people who would have an expectation of privacy.

While security cameras are legal in this way, therefore, if you plan on hiring someone long-term to work in your home, having them sign a waiver stating that they understand and consent to being recorded for work-related security purposes can be a helpful precaution.

The Prominence of the Recording Devices also Matters

Again, consider the difference between using an iPhone vs. Nixonian cameras and microphones. When you have your iPhone out, or have home security cameras clearly visible, there is often far more legal leeway, since the visibility of these devices can imply an understanding between parties that recording can or will occur. By contrast, hidden devices do not allow for that same implied consent.

This is also one reason that you’ll find many businesses and homes alike that feature signs and stickers announcing that the property in question is under surveillance. That said, there are exceptions on both accounts (clear visibility doesn’t mean all instances of recording are legal, and not all hidden camera setups are illegal), so you’ll want to read up on the specifics of what your state does and does not allow.

Participation in the Recording Event

Who “participates” in the recorded event and who doesn’t can also have a huge impact on what is allowable and what isn’t. While there are many variations from state to state, generally speaking, if the recording party is involved in the conversation or event in question, there is far more leeway in terms of its legality, especially in One-Party Consent states. For example, hidden cameras and microphones used to capture illicit or pornographic material without the recorded party’s consent does not typically feature “participation” by the recording party.

They typically aren’t on camera and aren’t engaging in a conversation with the targeted party, but they are rather using that camera to secretly record someone else. By contrast, if you are participating in a conversation with someone else in a public space where a reasonable expectation of privacy (such as would exist in a bedroom or bathroom) does not exist, there is more legal leeway. That said, as with the prominence of the cameras, party participation is also subject to many state-by-state specifics, and so you’ll again want to read up on what your state does and does not allow.

Webcams and Smartphones

As digital devices and, thus, webcams and smartphone cameras become a bigger part of our lives, it’s worth considering how they fit into all of this. These units are typically not considered to be home security cameras. On the one hand, this can allow them to do what a typical security camera cannot, legally or logistically, especially in public places. On the other hand, because of their comparative newness, there is less law and more legal grey area concerning their usage, so you’ll want to be aware of that.

Private Vs. Commercial Usage

It’s worth noting the difference between private vs. company usage of security cameras. Companies typically have their employees sign waivers stating that they understand that they are being recorded via video and, in some cases, audio. The cameras that record them are often prominently displayed.

The reason and thus “intent” of the company in this situation is clear. A company security system can thus be a lot more comprehensive than can a home security system, where the rationale and intent of such recording devices can be less clear. As such, you’ll want to keep that in mind when setting up your home security system, with the understanding that home security cameras typically have more restrictions.

Conclusion

Finally, if you’re unsure of your local and state laws, it is highly advisable that you work with a trained home security company in your area. They will be up to date on the latest developments in the industry and, just as importantly, will have a full understanding of what is permissible in your state. They can thus help you set up a security system that can help meet your surveillance and security needs without inadvertently running afoul of the law.

The balance between Security and Privacy is centuries-old, and only growing more important as smartphones and other recording devices become a greater part of our daily lives. Knowing what’s legal, what isn’t, and how to strike a balance between the need for Security while allowing for Privacy can help you order the right security options to keep your home and family safe.

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