As home security systems and doorbell cameras become more common, questions arise regarding the ethics and legality of video surveillance. For example, is it ethical to record everyone who walks by your door? What about recording anyone who visits your home? Is it legal to have a camera watching over your driveway if it also takes in part of your neighbor’s yard? We’ve got answers to your questions and concerns.
Laws you should know about
The main laws you need to know about are concerned with respecting the privacy of others. While these laws don’t apply to most home security equipment, anything that records audio or video needs to be in compliance. There are two federal laws that specifically apply:
- First, everyone has the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding cameras and video surveillance. That means cameras can’t be placed anywhere you would reasonably expect to have privacy, but are okay in public places and common areas.
- Second, it’s illegal to make an audio recording of a conversation unless you have the consent of one of the participating parties. That means if you’re one of the parties participating in a conversation, it’s okay to record it.
Those are the two laws relevant to home security devices at the federal level, but don’t forget to check with your state, county, and local/municipal laws as well. Some states (but not all) have their own laws about recording other people. Some require consent from all parties to be recorded, while others require consent from only one person. In Georgia, cameras are allowed but have to be visible. In California, you can’t record any conversations considered confidential. As you can see, it’s important to do your homework for your specific location.
Some home security systems require you to have a permit before installation, especially if the system connects to emergency dispatch services or uses professional monitoring. Many home security companies will help you register your system, but always check your local laws to find out what the exact requirements are. And if you can’t find that information online, get in touch with your city in person or on the phone.
Let’s break down what a “reasonable expectation of privacy” really means. Inside your home, there are places you expect to be private—specifically, bedrooms, bathrooms, and other changing rooms. It’s absolutely illegal to place cameras in such private spaces, even on your own property. In fact, people have gone to jail for doing exactly that (you can find some pretty disturbing recent examples).
You don’t expect that same kind of complete privacy in your kitchen or main living space or even in your garage, so installing indoor cameras to monitor those spaces is okay. Just be aware of exactly what’s being recorded so you don’t accidentally pick up an off-limits space (like a small bathroom off the kitchen, for example).
As far as the law regarding audio recordings, the one-party-consent rule should generally allow you to record in your home without issues. However, this is a little more nuanced. If you have babysitters, house sitters, or other people who regularly come into your home while you’re not there, you should let them know they are being recorded (though you don’t have to disclose where the cameras are). And remember that you can’t place an audio recording device, including cameras that pick up audio, where people who don’t know they’re being recorded might have a conversation.
For Airbnb hosts, rules about cameras are even more strict. Obviously, cameras can’t be placed in private areas of the home. But hosts are also required to disclose to guests when there are cameras anywhere on the premises, even if the cameras are disconnected. (1) Another rule is that cameras can’t be placed in any room used as a sleeping area (like a living room with a sleeper sofa or futon). (2) If you’re an Airbnb host, be sure to review all the details before installing any home security cameras.
Outdoor home surveillance devices, including cameras and video doorbells, are potentially a little trickier to navigate. Is it okay if your video doorbell camera picks up the yard of your neighbor across the street or the sidewalk in front of your house? Legally yes, because there isn’t an expectation of privacy outside in an open space. Yards, driveways, and exteriors of the home aren’t private spaces, so there’s more leeway in where you can place cameras.
However, if you have a security camera that looks into your neighbor’s house, especially a bedroom or bathroom—places they’d expect to have privacy—that’s definitely against the law. Cameras can’t be pointed directly at other houses or into windows in a way that would violate an expectation of privacy.
There is an ethics aspect as well when you record your neighbor’s property, even the outdoor spaces that are open to the public. While having more outdoor video surveillance in a neighborhood can increase overall security, it might feel invasive to some people. Consider if the situation were reversed and your neighbor could record anything that goes on in your yard—you might not be comfortable with that, especially if you know their security system is being monitored. Every situation and setup will be a little different, but we encourage you to be considerate. Ask yourself, first, what do I actually need to view in order to protect my own home? And second, how can I do that without monitoring too much of my neighbor’s space?
Is it worth the potential hassle?
You might be wondering at this point if it’s worth the hassle of installing security cameras while navigating privacy and consent laws. Let us assure you, multiple studies have shown that there are measurable benefits to having a home security system. Plus, the likelihood that you’ll have to deal with these laws in court is very small if you are simply monitoring your own home.
Remember that your intention in creating recordings with your security devices is a big factor. If you use the recordings purely for home security purposes and don’t do anything else with them, you’ll be fine. If you start sharing videos of your neighbors or recordings of your guests to social media without permission, that’s when you’ll run into issues.
There’s a lot to consider as you think about security equipment, where you can legally install it, and when to inform people they’re being recorded. Hopefully this guide has helped you understand how to navigate the ethics laws surrounding privacy and home surveillance. For insights into home security ethics and privacy, read our article, “Who owns my home security data, and how is it used?”
Kate Herrick is a freelance writer with a decade of experience, and whose goal is to create clear, useful, and informative writing, no matter the topic. When it comes to home security, Kate has researched and written about everything from professional companies and the latest home automation to fire safety, online safeguards, and personal security. When not at the computer, she is either reading or trying to keep up with her four crazy kids.
Eric Paulsen is a writer, editor, and strategist who has been creating content in the B2B, healthcare, FinTech, home security, and government sectors for more than five years. He holds an MFA in creative writing and lets everyone in his life hang that over his head. When he doesn’t have his hands deep in some piece of content, he’s either watching baseball or praying for the offseason to end quickly.