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Hidden Camera Laws (Quick Guide)

Published by in PI Gear Tools and Equipment · 20 August 2018
Despite the widespread purchase and common use of hidden cameras, the majority of people do not understand the rules and regulations in using them, leaving themselves open to prosecution. It is therefore important to keep yourself updated on the current legislation.

Our guide on hidden camera laws will give you an insight into the legal use of spy cameras as well as providing links to other useful resources.

To understand spy camera laws - the legalities and illegalities surrounding their use - it is a good point to understand what a hidden camera is, the forms they come in, and why they are even used in the first place.

Just to clear things up from the start, buying a hidden camera itself is legal; it is the how and where the hidden camera gets used is when spy camera laws come into effect.

What Is A Hidden Camera

A hidden camera or spy camera, as they are also known, is a video recording camera unit generally used to record people without them knowing. The camera is "hidden" because it is either not visible to the person being filmed, or is disguised as another object.

The best spy cameras are those that are built into everyday objects such as television sets, smoke detectors, clock radios, electrical adaptors, mobile phones, calculators, etc. These cameras are generally used for legitimate surveillance purposes for commercial or industrial needs to monitor employees or property, but they are also used for home security surveillance - such as watching a nanny or caregiver.

Legal Use of Hidden Cameras

The use of hidden cameras for spying raises personal privacy issues and there are certain legal aspects to consider, depending on the Country or State in which the spy camera is being used.

Hidden Camera Laws in The U.S. States

It is important that you understand the state and federal laws that govern the use of cameras and recording devices in the United States. U.S. Federal laws generally regard spying with cameras as legal but there are circumstances when it becomes illegal. Positioning a hidden camera in a private area such as a toilet or bathroom, or using one for malicious purposes, makes the use of the hidden camera illegal.

Hidden camera laws don’t just cover the filming or video aspect of spying but also the audio or voice recordings. Regulations governing audio recordings are generally stricter than those governing video surveillance, and include face to face, telephonic, and conversations recorded by an absent third party - such as leaving a bugging device or spy voice recorder in a room to record on its own.

Generally, most state laws require the consent of a person before using any audio recording device to record their conversation. In this case, the person recording has to place the recording device in full view of their subject. In the United States, the US Code Title 18, Chapter 119, Section 2512 prohibits the interception of oral communication by "surreptitious manner" such as with a hidden camera that has audio recording.

Hidden cameras are legal in all 50 states, but it is illegal in 13 of those states to record audio without the express or written consent of the subject being recorded. This falls under the federal government's 'wire tapping' laws. Because of this, most hidden cameras, although legal, are sold without audio capabilities, since it is prohibited (in some U.S. States) to intercept audio communications without all parties knowledge.

Though some hidden cameras on the market may be available with the ability to record audio, these cameras should not be used due to the illegality of the recordings they produce – unless you are in a State that is exempt.

U.S. State Hidden Camera Statutes

The laws of 13 states expressly prohibit the unauthorized installation or use of cameras (including hidden cameras) in private places. A private place is one where an individual may reasonably expect to be safe from unauthorized surveillance.

The installation or use of any device in the States of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Utah, for photographing, observing, or overhearing sounds or events in a private place, without the permission of the people being observed or photographed, is against the law.

Hidden camera laws in the States of Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota and Utah, also prohibit trespassing on private property to conduct surveillance of the people there. In most of these states, unauthorized installation or use of a spy camera, or trespassing to install or use one, is classed as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine. In Maine, the privacy violation is more serious and classed as a felony. In Michigan, the unauthorized installation or use of a hidden surveillance camera is classed as a felony, punishable by a fine and prison.

U.S. State Surreptitious Audio Recording Statutes

Just to give you a general guideline on what the law says about recording conversations with audio devices. In the United States it is legal to film and record any conversation if all of the parties involved have given their consent. It is always legal to record or film when face-to-face with the subject(s) you are recording, when your recorder or camera is in plain view. In these instances, the consent of all parties is presumed. This obviously doesn’t help when applying it to hidden surveillance – as you don’t want the subject to be aware of recording - but should still be known.

If you want to use hidden cameras with audio it’s important to know that of the 50 States, 38 of them, as well as the District of Columbia, allow you to record conversations of which you are a party without informing the other parties you are doing so. This is called one-party-consent. 12 of those States - California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington – have laws forbidding the recording of private conversations without the consent of all parties. This would make it illegal to use a hidden camera with audio capability in those States.

Most of the State’s statutes permit the recording of speeches and conversations that take place where the parties may reasonably expect to be recorded.

Final Words on Hidden Video Camera Laws and Legal Issues

If you think you’re being illegally watched by a hidden camera, you can easily obtain a hidden camera detector to find it. You can also hire a private investigator, one who is trained in TSCM (Technical Surveillance Counter Measures), to uncover well hidden spy cameras or listening devices that have been illegally placed. Above all else, you can educate yourself on how to spot these hidden cameras.
If you still have concerns or doubts with the legal installation and use of a hidden camera, consult an attorney or any legal professional. An attorney will help you understand how to use your hidden camera legally so you don’t end up in hot water.


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