I questioned several camera-owning homeowners to find out how they’re using their cameras beyond security. The responses ranged from nanny-cam-like to downright creative — but some raise issues about privacy. So before you install a system, you should be aware of the laws and ethics regarding video camera use in the home.
Edwards, a single parent, says her cameras have helped her “be there” for her kids even when she isn’t physically home. “My son had some wild years, and I put a camera with audio in the living room so I could check on him and his friends. I could look at my phone at any time to see what was going on.” The word “hands” became an inside family joke. “They’d see the camera light come on, hear me say ‘hands’ and they’d laugh and wave their hands.”
Wendy Julia and her husband, Claude, of Denver, rely on housesitters when they travel. The couple had a basic security system that alerted them when a door opened, but it wasn’t until their son gave them cameras covering the kitchen, den and patio that they were truly able to observe whether the housesitters were doing their job.
“We hired someone new to housesit and watch our dachshund, Olive,” Julia says. Though she didn’t mention the cameras to the housesitter, they were in plain sight. When she checked in, she could see that the sitter wasn’t around often, didn’t take the dog on long walks and didn’t spend the night.
“Olive can’t tell me the sitter didn’t come or only walked her for five minutes,” she says. “With the camera, I know if the person is being responsible and should I let them stay in my house and care for my dog again. That’s important to me.”
It’s one thing to use a camera to check in with your very-much-aware children, of course, but another to use one to monitor household workers who might not see the cameras, even if they aren’t hidden. This is where the use of cameras can get tricky, both legally and ethically.
In general, you don’t need consent to videotape people in your home. In most states, however, it’s illegal to record hidden-camera video in areas where the subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as the bathroom.
Laws vary from state to state regarding whether you need to tell someone you can see and/or hear them. In fact, it can be a crime to capture the conversations of others under federal law, explains Linda V. Priebe, a former deputy general counsel and ethics official in White House offices under three presidents. For example, in the District and Virginia, if you are one of the parties participating in a conversation you can record audio, whereas in Maryland all participants must consent, Priebe says.
Also worth noting: It’s illegal to record video or audio with malicious intent, such as using the recording for blackmail.
Wendy Patrick, an attorney and business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University, says you should consider more than your state’s law (to research that, search online for “[your-state] state law eavesdropping” or “[your-state] camera in your home law”). “When it comes to observation by stealth, the important ethical question to ask is not can you, but should you,” she says.
Do the means justify the ends? Are you watching or listening to protect a child, pet or elderly relative? A caregiver might expect there may be a camera running; a dinner guest would not. “Better to be safe than sorry,” Patrick says. “Tell people, ‘Just to let you know, we have cameras in the house, and they are always on.’ Few people hired to do a service will have a problem.”
Priebe agrees. “My rule of thumb is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What would be your own privacy concerns if told you were being recorded in someone’s home. If I’m a guest, I’d want the option to say, ‘Could you turn that off?’ ”
One case when recording what goes on at home doesn’t require consent: Using security cameras to check up on furry friends. Former D.C. resident Elaine Rose has security cameras inside and outside her Los Angeles home. A smartphone app lets her access cameras to monitor Rocco, a 5-year-old Jack Russell-Basenji mix. Rocco is a bit anxious, to put it mildly, and has a tendency to dig — actually dig — into the couch cushions. Rose is on sofa number four. “Now, I check on him every few hours, and with the two-way audio camera I’m able to talk to him. I’ll say, ‘Rocco are you messing with the couch?’ and he lays down and stops — at least temporarily.”
Though the couch carnage has yet to be remedied, Rose says the cameras give her a sense of security, and Rocco’s other antics, such as catlike perching on the back of the sofa, provide a chuckle for her and her friends.
Edwards tried using the audio camera to communicate with her dog, Lucas, who would jump onto the sofa when left alone. “It worked well until he figured out we weren’t really in the room or went deaf. I’m not sure which came first,” she says.
A couple in San Antonio used their exterior security cameras to help settle a marital dispute. Louis Wood’s family lives next to a greenbelt. “One day my wife mentioned that she thought she saw a cat in the yard. Then she said it was a fox. I didn’t believe there were fox in San Antonio, so I said, ‘Let’s see the instant replay.’ We pulled up the exterior security-camera footage and, sure enough, she was right, and I was wrong,” Wood says.
Every few days, Wood, his wife and their two toddlers watch video of skunks, possum, a hawk and not one but two foxes that visit the home. “The kids love it, because they recognize the house and can see the animals filmed during the day and at night [in infrared].”
Wood says the family also uses the cameras to check on their housekeeper’s progress, so they don’t come home too soon and get in her way. “The cameras are for security, but I’m delighted they are multifaceted,” he says. “That adds to their value.”
Edwards and her children have used the security system app as an alternative to video calling.
“Savannah called me from the grocery store asking what cabbage looked like,” Edwards recalled. “It’s really hard to explain over the phone, so I had her open the app on her phone and pulled some cabbage and iceberg lettuce out of the refrigerator and held both up in front of the video camera to show her the difference.”
My award for best use of a security camera for an alternative purpose goes to Miguel Suro and Lily Rodriguez. Barely a year after they moved into the Miami home, they had to evacuate their flood-prone neighborhood as Hurricane Irma approached. Suro brought his exterior security cameras inside and pointed several to look out the impact-resistant windows.
By the time the couple reached the safety of North Carolina, Irma had come ashore. “Until the power went out, we could see everything going on. A neighbor’s tree snapped and fell into the street. The best part was we could see no water coming into the house or street flooding,” Suro says.
Suro and Rodriguez have also used security cameras to monitor a new nanny for their infant daughter, as well as the comings and goings of service providers such as their pool cleaner. Suro anticipates using the devices well into the future. “I’m certain that when my daughter is a teenager, the house will be well-covered in cameras.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Miguel Suro as Michael Suro. This version has been corrected.