Legal Issues Concerning Surveillance Cameras

By Steve Lander

Installing video surveillance has legal ramifications.
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First widely used in the 1970s in high security settings like banks and sensitive government installations, video surveillance cameras have grown in popularity. Ranging from increased government use of surveillance for public safety to individual homeowners using hidden "nanny-cams," cameras are now everywhere. While they can be helpful tools, they also open up a number of legal concerns.

Privacy Concerns

What may seem like the biggest legal issue with cameras -- that they invade privacy -- is actually not as significant legally as it may seem. In your home, you have the right to record what happens, as long as it is not in a place where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, like the bathroom. On the public street, there is very little expectation of privacy, so video surveillance is also legal.

Liability Concerns

Having a video surveillance system can both create additional liability and shield you from liability. Being able to prove that you made good faith efforts to keep people on your property safe by installing a video surveillance system could protect you if someone is harmed on your property. On the other hand, you could also end up having to share your recordings with law enforcement, if something happens on your property that is caught on tape.

Workplace Concerns

In the workplace, you have to deal with two competing interests. Employers have a legitimate need and right to watch their employees. At the same time, employees maintain some privacy rights while they are at work. Workplace privacy laws vary by state, but it is very common for video surveillance of restrooms, locker rooms and break areas to be illegal, while surveillance of work areas is allowed.

Video, Audio or Both

From a legal perspective, there is a significant difference between a video-only camera and a camera that records audio along with the video. Federal anti-wiretapping laws, which apply to audio recordings, are written to include cameras, as well as phone bugs or taps. As such, if your camera is set up to record audio, you will fall under even more legal scrutiny.