What is the legality of businesses *secretly* recording people on company property (e.g spy cams)?

It seems like every business has multiple video cameras setup to record employee and customer interactions. These cameras are completely out in the open for everyone to see. But could a business also use hidden cameras which would not be evident? There are many spy cam devices that record video but look like ordinary objects like clocks, smoke detectors, etc. Could a business utilize hidden cameras to record video when people didn’t think they were being recorded? Obviously they couldn’t put it in the bathrooms or anything, but what about putting spy cams in offices, supply areas, display racks, etc to try and catch people when they didn’t think they were being recorded?

I’ve always assumed that the exposed video cameras were allowed because the individual can see the camera and decide to leave if they didn’t want to be recorded. If the camera is hidden, then the individual does not have the opportunity to make that decision. But legally speaking, does that make any difference? Is a business free to record video in any manner they chose on their own property even if the cameras are not visible?

It depends on the state laws, but to speak generally:

Anything you do in public is fair game for surveillance, recording, and photography. Your right and expectations of privacy nonexistent in public because… Drum roll… You are in public. So what difference does it make whether the camera is visible or clandestine? The courts give business owners wide latitude when it comes to the security of their property.

In places where you have an expectation of privacy (eg a home, a hotel room, a latrine) the laws may be more restrictive. Some states require that the person consent to be recorded while others may not.

The precedent from the courts is that if you don’t want to be recorded, don’t leave your house.


Does the notion of “public spaces” include both publicly owned places–parks, sidewalks, etc–as well as privately owned places that are open to the public–stores, office buildings, restaurants, etc? It seems reasonable to assume you don’t have privacy when you’re walking down the street, but it doesn’t automatically seem like the same thing when you’re in a store.

So then, could a restaurant do something like install hidden cameras and microphones in the salt shakers on every table so that they could eavesdrop on their customers?

That’s a nice link Duckster.
Elements of an Intrusion Claim

An intrusion on seclusion claim is a special form of invasion of privacy. It applies when someone intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another. In most states, to make out an intrusion on seclusion claim, a plaintiff must generally establish 4 elements:

[li]First, that the defendant, without authorization, must have intentionally invaded the private affairs of the plaintiff;[/li]
[li] Second, the invasion must be offensive to a reasonable person;[/li]
[li] Third, the matter that the defendant intruded upon must involve a private matter; and[/li]
[li] Finally, the intrusion must have caused mental anguish or suffering to the plaintiff. See Restatement (Second) of Torts - Intrusion Upon Seclusion.[/li][/ul]
It sounds like a camera in a clothing store’s dressing room would qualify under all 4 criteria. Microphones in salt shakers would qualify under the first 3 criteria, and the fourth depending upon the specific conversation recorded. IANAL.

In this day and age, I just assume I’m being recorded somewhere wherever I go.

There’s a difference between audio and video- the security footage I’ve seen never has audio- my understanding is that is because in my state, at least one party’s consent is needed to record audio and a security camera might record conversations between two customers, neither of whom consented.

But it’s not really reasonable to assume you have privacy in a store or restaurant , because you have no control over who else is there and what they might overhear. Same thing for the common areas of large office buildings. I’m not sure where a particular company’s office would fall- I suspect that employees might have a reasonable expectation of privacy but not others.

Yes, audio recording is different. Years ago, late 70s or early 80s, a Las Vegas casino (maybe the Hilton, but not sure) installed hidden microphones on their Craps tables to stop the dealers asking the players for tips. The court made them remove the mics.

In Nevada casinos most areas are under constant video surveillance but the only place where audio recording takes place is the Security holding room where people taken into custody are held until police arrive – and that room has a sign prominently posted saying that audio is being recorded.

Additional tidbit: It is not legal for a Nevada casino to put up a phony surveillance camera; all cameras must be operational and capable of recording.

Well that’s interesting. Any idea why that is?

Because the appearance of a camera implies events are being recorded. A company can be liable if something happens like someone being robbed or assaulted and they run to where they think the attack will be seen by security and there is no camera actually there.

there was a court case in Ontario(?) many years ago that established the principle that security cameras could not be set up to monitor employees minute-by-minute. IIRC the case revolved around monitoring how long bathroom breaks were, by recording the corridor to the washroom. However, there have been plenty of situations where hidden cameras have been used to search for illegal or unsafe activities as opposed to routine discipline. (I.e. watch the till for theft, etc.) After all, the whole point is to not tell anyone they are being watched at that point.