Are Security Cameras Legal?

DIY is the future of home security, but before making your home into the Big Brother house, take some time to check out the legal implications.

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Feb 11, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Feb 11, 2021

Disclaimer: The information herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, nor is it a substitute for obtaining advice from an attorney. Each case is different, and you should not act or rely on any information contained herein without seeking the advice of an experienced attorney.


Whether you’re trying to protect your home, look out for all of your Amazon deliveries or make sure your dog isn’t getting into the trash, there are a million reasons why someone would get a home security camera. Throughout this article, we’ll do our best to demystify some of the potential legal quirks and restrictions of having active security cameras on your property. Indoor or outdoor and state by state, we have all of your questions covered.

Blue by ADT Outdoor Camera Closeup
Blue by ADT Outdoor Camera Closeup

So you checked out our best security cameras page and are considering an upgrade. But does this mean you’ll have to get everyone who comes into your house to sign a waiver? What about folks who walk by your front door; do you need consent from them if they end up on camera? Although the laws aren’t overly explicit and vary by state, we’ve gone through the trouble of summarizing them below.

Federal Law

At the federal or national level, there are two sets of laws you’ll want to think about when setting up your home security cameras: consent laws and expectation of privacy laws.

  • Expectation of privacy laws: Generally, it’s legal to record video in public. That goes for your everyday doorbell cameras, security cameras, etc. The only caveat is that anyone on camera should have a reasonable expectation of privacy. A reasonable expectation of privacy means that places assumed to be private like bathrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms, hotel rooms, and bedrooms, are generally off limits.1 Now of course if it is your bedroom in your house, you should have no legal problem, but if you want to stay out of trouble, your best bet is to keep the cameras out of the bedrooms, etc.
  • One-party consent laws: For the audio recording of private conversations, this law (18 U.S.C. 2511(2)(d))2 allows recording of phone calls or, most importantly for home security cameras, in-person conversations with the consent of at least one of the parties. That means as long as you or another consenting adult are the parties in the audio being recorded, you’re free and clear to keep those audio equipped cameras rolling.

FYI: Cameras in your home are a great way to keep track of pets and small children. Just be sure to consider the privacy standards of any guests or visitors when placing your cameras.

Deep Sentinel Wireless Camera
Deep Sentinel Wireless Camera

State Law

Only 15 states in the U.S. have specific laws around security cameras, but some counties and cities also have their own laws. So if you don’t see your state listed below, check out your home city or county’s website for more info.

  • Georgia: Georgia permits using video surveillance cameras in public and private settings just as long as the cameras are in plain sight.
  • Florida, Alabama, and Minnesota: Florida, Alabama, and Minnesota allows for hidden video surveillance in non-private settings. Check out that “expectation of privacy” definition above for a better idea of what non-private means.
  • Tennessee, Michigan, and Utah: While you don’t need permission to install security cameras in public places in these states, you do need consent for hiding cameras in places that would be considered private.
  • Hawaii: For our friends on the islands, you’ll need the consent of those being watched to install security cameras.
  • New Hampshire, Maine, Kansas, South Dakota, and Delaware: These states apply the “reasonable expectation of privacy” principle and rule that you need consent to use hidden camera surveillance.
  • California: This is a bit more specific than other states, but in California, it is illegal for anyone to make a video recording of communications that are considered confidential.
  • Arkansas: State law requires consent when recording individuals in a private space.

What is the Difference Between Audio and Video Recording?

The law interprets audio and video recording slightly differently. First and most importantly, it is legal at both the federal and state level to record anything with an adequately displayed home security camera or recording device (i.e., not hidden). That means that you can install your home security system with a video doorbell, outdoor camera, or indoor camera that records sound, as well as video, without much worry. However, there are some legal oddities and critical ways to prevent your security camera installation from becoming a legal liability.

Did You Know: Laws around security cameras vary by state and county. Check out your state or local sheriff’s website for more information.

Are Hidden Cameras Legal?

One of the classic cases of indoor security cameras is the nanny cam. Long gone are the days of hiding a secret camera in a teddy bear, but hidden cameras are generally legal, as long as they abide by the expectation of privacy laws outlined above. There are any number of how-tos, instructional videos, and Reddit threads teaching people how to effectively hide their in-home security cameras, but before jumping in, you would be wise to consider the potential ramification of recording your guests or hired help without their consent. It’s important to mention that laws around recording audio are much tougher than video, so always keep that in mind while looking for the right camera for your home. As always, it’s important to look at the legislation on a state-by-state basis.

Vivint Outdoor Camera Pro Day Vision
Vivint Outdoor Camera Pro Day Vision

Where Can I Point My Outdoor Cameras?

As you may have learned from our best practices on where to place your home security camera, outdoor cameras don’t typically deal with some of the potential privacy infringements that indoor cameras do. Outdoor cameras, including video doorbells, can reasonably be stationed around your property, provided they don’t point directly into a room or space that a neighbor would consider private. Rather, cameras are allowed to point from your front door at the street, front lawn, or your own back door, etc., but as soon as you can see into a neighbor’s house, that’s when things get a little dicey. The best course of action is to keep those digital eyes focused on your own property and/or public property.

Blink Outdoor - Installed
Blink Outdoor – Installed

Do You Need to Register Your Security Camera or System?

Surprisingly enough, some counties require that you register your own security cameras and alarm systems with local or municipal governments, which we explain more fully in “does my home security system need a permit?”. One of the closest counties to us that requires registry is Suffolk County in Long Island.4 Thankfully, in Suffolk County, the only security systems that require a registry are linked directly to the local police alarm, so your average DIY security systems aren’t subject. All the more reason to check out your local ordinances before making your home security decision.

How Do You Protect Yourself from Security Infringement?

With the ability for laws around security cameras to change at the whims of the government, it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t legal. The best piece of advice is first to make sure that you are setting up indoor and outdoor security cameras for the right reasons. Things like security and protection are reasonable, so even if you record something that might be in the gray zone of legality, as long as your cameras are in plain sight and are in a public place, you should be safe from legal action.

Kami Outdoor Camera
Kami Outdoor Camera

Recap

Mitigating risk is our specialty here at Security.com, but sometimes the risk isn’t from hackers, data thieves, or home intruders; it’s from the law itself. Security cameras present an interesting combination of both protecting the users, but also, potentially opening them up to some legal risks. Luckily, following the rules and suggestions laid out above is just as easy as installing a DIY camera, so if you stick to those basic principles, you’ll be operating legally and protecting your home more effectively.

Swann Camera
Swann Camera

Frequently Asked Questions

Even though we covered a lot in the article, there may still be some unanswered questions. Here are a few frequently asked questions that we get all the time.

  • Where are security cameras not allowed?

    Security cameras are allowed on your own property. However, it is illegal to record anyone without their consent in places where there is an expectation of privacy. That includes places like bathrooms, changing rooms, private bedrooms, etc.

  • Do you need a sign if you have security cameras?

    No, you do not need a sign if you have security cameras. Sometimes people opt for signs as a deterrent to potential intruders or simply to let the package deliverers, dog walkers, etc. know that they will be on camera. However, they’re not legally required.

  • Is it illegal to have cameras with audio?

    No, it is not illegal to have cameras that include audio. However, in many states it is illegal to record someone without their consent, especially when they are indoors. To avoid this, it’s important to keep any cameras in plain sight and check with local or state laws.

  • Do police have access to Ring cameras?

    Yes, hundreds of police departments have agreements with Ring that allows them to see video and access data from their video doorbells with users’ consent or a government subpoena.

Citations
  1. Cornell. (2021). Expectation of Privacy.
    law.cornell.edu/wex/expectation_of_privacy

  2. Cornell. (2021). 18 U.S. Code § 2511 – Interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications prohibited.
    law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2511

  3. MobileVideoGuard.com. (2021). The Rules on the Legal Use of Video Surveillance by State.
    mobilevideoguard.com/video-surveillance-laws-by-state/

  4. Suffolk County Police Dept. (2021). Welcome to the Alarm Management Program of Suffolk (AMPS) Prevention and Administration Site.
    falsealarm.suffolkcountyny.gov/Default.aspx