What's Legal and What's Not When Placing Hidden Cameras in Your Home, Your Office or in Public Places?
Understanding the legal ramifications of using hidden cameras.
Is it Legal to Record Video with a Hidden Camera or "Nanny Cam" in Your Home?
Generally speaking, it's legal in the United States to record surveillance video with a hidden camera in your home without the consent of the person you're recording. That's why the use of nanny cams is becoming increasingly common among parents and guardians who work outside their homes during the day. But before you place a hidden camera or nanny cam in your home, it's a good idea to research the laws in your state. For an extra measure of security, you may also want to speak to an attorney about the specific ways you plan to use your camera.
One important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between audio recording and video recording. Across the country, the restrictions regarding audio surveillance are a lot tougher, which we'll discuss further later in this piece. In most states, it's illegal to record hidden camera video in areas where your subjects have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In your home, these areas might include bathrooms and bedrooms (if your subject lives with you--as in the case of a live-in nanny).
Not every state expressly bans the use of hidden cameras in places where a subject might have a reasonable expectation of privacy. But that doesn't mean you should assume it's legal--or morally acceptable--to record a subject without their consent in any private area.
Also, remember that it's illegal in the United States to record video (or audio) with the express purpose of blackmail or other "malicious intent." Even if you follow all other laws governing covert surveillance in your state, it's important to keep in mind that your rights are waived if you engage in criminal behavior.
Is it Legal to Record with a Hidden Camera in Public Areas Outside Your Home?
Outside the home, similar laws apply. It's generally legal to record surveillance video in public places--inside retail stores, restaurants, or other places of business, for example. It's also legal to record covert video outdoors in parks, shopping malls, city streets, or public squares.
"Reasonable expectation of privacy" guidelines apply to the placement of hidden cameras in public places as well. For example, it's illegal to record covert video in hotel rooms, restrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms, and other "private" areas.
Is it Legal for Employers to Record with a Hidden Camera in the Workplace?
Neither the federal government nor the states have established a firm set of laws governing hidden camera recording in the workplace. Currently, small business owners are generally within their legal rights if they install hidden cameras in their places of business. Though many business owners choose to notify their employees of the presence of hidden cams, they're not legally required to do so.
Based on guidelines established by the National Labor Relations Board, corporations--especially those that employ union workers--often negotiate with the applicable trade unions beforehand to establish rules governing the use of hidden cameras. But again, few clearly defined federal or state laws require them to do so.
Is it Legal to Record Conversations with a Hidden Audio Device?
The laws on audio surveillance are a bit clearer than the laws governing hidden camera surveillance. If you're planning to record a telephone call or an in-person conversation, using either a standalone audio recorder or a video camera that also captures sound, federal and state laws require that at least one of the parties consent to the recording. Currently, a majority of states allow "one-party consent." States that require two-party consent include California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington. (Hawaii allows one-party consent for audio recordings, but it requires two-party consent if the recording device is in a "private place.")
Is it Legal to Record a Phone Call Or Conversation When You Do Not Have Consent from One of the Parties?
At either the federal or state level, it's almost always illegal to record a phone call or private conversation in which you are not a participant, or couldn't naturally overhear the conversation in a public place. Additionally, federal and state laws generally deem it illegal to covertly place a recording device on a person or telephone in a home, office, or restaurant to secretly record a conversation between two people who have not consented.
Published April 20th, 2021
Updated September 15, 2021