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Just because the elevator doors are closed doesn’t mean you’re alone

The Baltimore Ravens have cut running back Ray Rice, and the NFL has suspended him indefinitely. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
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This has been a big year for elevator camera videos. First there was the leaked altercation between Jay-Z and his sister-in-law Solange Knowles. Last week the CEO of a sports and entertainment catering company was forced to step down after a video appeared to show him kicking a puppy in an elevator went viral.

And Monday, a video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiance inside the elevator of an Atlantic City Hotel surfaced courtesy of TMZ Sports. An earlier video appeared to show Rice dragging Janay Palmer's unconscious body out of the elevator, but that was from a camera on the outside. Rice had been given a two-game  suspension after the first video was released, but it wasn't until the video that shows him actually beating his now-wife surfaced that he was cut from the team.

All of these cases go to show that despite the veil of privacy that seems to descend once their doors close, elevators are still very much public places -- where activities may be monitored. Although it's unclear just how many elevators in the United States come equipped with cameras, there seems to always be a digital eye watching when someone prominent does something embarrassing or potentially criminal inside a lift.

Basically, the rules governing elevator cameras are no different from those that cover security cameras placed elsewhere on private property says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, although he argues that elevator riders should receive some sort of notice -- perhaps a sign -- to indicate that they are under surveillance.

Private business owners are generally allowed to install cameras on their properties as long as they serve some legitimate business purpose -- such as deterring vandalism or theft -- and don't invade an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy.

"The key is that courts would not understand people to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces like elevators," says Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Public bathrooms would be different, for instance." Cameras are usually only able to record video, because audio recording may run afoul of local wiretapping laws.

As recording technology advances, it is bringing new scrutiny to activities that occur in areas once thought of as private. Video recordings made in elevators may only occasionally leak out when the contents are newsworthy or scandalous, but it's difficult to say how many and which employees might have access to filmed content.

While it's hard to argue against the disclosures of alleged domestic abuse, it might be easier to feel discomfort about videos of you picking your nose when you thought no one was watching being passed around for laughs. So for now, it is probably best to assume someone is always watching you in the elevator.

But experts say the rapid development of surveillance technology means that elevators aren't the only once-"private" place where you are might be on camera.

"In an elevator there's this acute sense that when the doors close you feel the rest of the world is not watching you anymore -- and you don't notice the physical presence of something small like a camera," says Clemson University assistant professor Kelly Caine.

"Despite those cues, technology allows you to be observed at all times when the camera is rolling and that's limited to elevators," she explains. "The implications of that with the miniaturization of technology means we have to think about what that means in the privacy in everywhere those cameras might be placed -- from back yards to watch for burglars, to the inside of private residences where cameras might be placed to watch over elderly parents."