Our homes are increasingly becoming smarter, more adaptable to our needs, and more wired to the world, whether using physical wires or wireless signals. Formerly benign devices like doorbells, thermostats, and ceiling lights are now accessible by apps on our mobile devices. Security cameras lead the way in this revolution, providing homeowners with a powerful home security tool that is literally in our own hands.
Where technology leads the way, laws are sure to follow. What is the legality of these home security measures? As it becomes easier and cheaper to proliferate security cameras throughout the house, where can these cameras legally be installed?
Which Laws Address Home Security Camera Placement?
No single set of laws applies to every situation throughout the entire United States. A patchwork of federal, state, county, and local laws controls video and audio recording. Federal law is generally silent on the matter of video surveillance, instead addressing audio eavesdropping and surveillance. If your home is part of a homeowners' association (HOA), your HOA contract may restrict the use of exterior home security cameras.
Since laws are local, constantly evolving, and often unclear, consult with a local attorney about home security camera laws. If you violate these laws, you may be at risk for criminal prosecution and the injured party may even be able to bring a civil lawsuit against you.
Where Can You Have a Security Camera in the Home?
Many states' statutory language employs the phrase "reasonable expectation of privacy" regarding video surveillance within a home or business. Bedrooms, bathrooms, and changing rooms are places where a user can reasonably expect privacy. A doorbell camera and other exterior cameras are not located in places where privacy is expected.
There is considerable gray area with these laws, and they have been tested in some cases. In one, a state supreme court ruled against a woman who had brought suit against the owners of a security camera that recorded her changing clothes in a room where privacy was not expected.
Is Audio Surveillance Different From Video Surveillance?
Yes. United States Code, Title 18, Section 2510 says that all parties that are being recorded must clearly understand that they are being recorded. Many states reinforce this with so-called two-party consent laws: Everyone who is a party to the conversation must understand that they are being aurally recorded. With one-party consent laws, you can record the audio of a conversation as long as you are a party to the conversation. One universal thing: It is illegal to surreptitiously record audio when you are not a party to the conversation and when the parties have not given consent.
Do You Need to Register Your Security Camera or System?
Yes, in some areas, you must register your home security system with your local municipality. While currently the number of municipalities that require registration is small, more municipalities are adopting this requirement as home security systems become more common. Often, the company installing the system is the one required to apply for the initial registration, with the homeowner required to subsequently maintain the registration. The intent of registration is to reduce the number of false alarm calls by emergency responders.
Can a Security Camera Be Pointed at a Neighbor's Property?
Home security cameras often point toward an adjacent property with no ill intent. If the camera is surveilling a side yard, it can often be impossible to avoid the neighboring property. At the same time, home security cameras can be used as tools of harassment.
If you are on the receiving end of a home security camera pointed toward your property, you cannot do anything invasive such as cut wires, cover the lens, or move the camera, nor can you jam the camera's Wi-Fi signal. Before you take the issue to court, legal experts recommend that you first speak to the neighbor. If that fails, you can plant trees or tall shrubs that block the camera's view of your property.
Is It Legal to View or Record Video on a Doorbell?
Generally, as with other cameras located on your property, it is legal for you to record video through smart doorbells such as Ring. Legal experts, though, caution that these doorbells should be pointed at your own property. While it is not illegal to shoot video outside of your property, there is an expectation of privacy for neighbors through their windows, doors, and other glass or openings. If your doorbell's true intent is to surreptitiously record your neighbor on their own property, this may be construed as harassment.
Should You Gain Consent Before Recording With a Home Security Camera?
Generally, consent is not required of the parties being recorded by a home security camera, as long as it is video-only (not audio) and it is being recorded in an area where privacy is not reasonably expected. Recording in a living room would not require consent. However, a video camera in a guest bedroom while guests are staying there would require consent.
Does the Intent of Recording the Video Matter?
Yes and no. In many areas, yes, the purpose of recording the video matters, and greater penalties are associated with these motives. Many states include language that addresses reasons such as malicious intent, blackmail, sexual gratification, sexual satisfaction, or prurient reasons. However, in instances where you are already recording illegally (in a guest bedroom, without consent of the guests), it is still illegal—whether or not you have ill intent.