Private surveillance cameras and pleasing the neighbors
Know your state laws before placing cameras in multi-unit buildings
A home resident sets up surveillance cameras, some of which have lenses pointing at the backyard and back door of a neighbor. The neighbor writes into NOLO inquiring about whether this is an invasion of privacy. It’s a valid question for any homeowner, condo owner and/or renter to ask. State laws largely determine what goes and what doesn’t.
For example, in the State of Illinois, “a person may not videotape another without that person’s consent in a restroom, tanning bed/salon, locker room, changing room or hotel bedroom, or in the other person’s residence.” From one property owner to another, this law is pretty clear. But how does one narrow this down in a multi-unit building where tenants (or owners) can feel like they’re being watched entering and leaving their home — regardless of whether the camera is watching everyone? And what if a multi-unit resident makes a big deal about this the way this homeowner did?
It’s easy enough to wonder why someone would be so paranoid or peculiarly convinced that the condo board (or camera owner) finds them interesting enough to watch all day long. While there is definitely a world of entertainment for reality TV, the average resident coming and leaving is usually pretty dull. But there is a bit of validity to this argument — if the camera owner is indeed spying on them.
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If a unit owner or tenant truly believes this is the case, the first step is to bring it to the landlord or condo board. Then find out the reason why the camera is there. If the tenant or owner only seems to take issue with one camera among many — and the other cameras can monitor just as much footage — the accusation becomes suspicious. But if the camera is installed in such a way that it only seems to monitor said person, then the validity of this concern increases.
When neighbors aren’t so neighborly
Sometimes installing a camera makes no difference. My condominium was constantly running into neighbors who didn’t seem to understand that they were neighbors, not residents. This meant parking in our private and paid parking spots to unload their groceries, laundry, furniture and more. This meant them hanging out in our parking spots to drink and chat with friends — other strangers who did not live in our building. This even meant them sitting on our steps taking Zoom calls. One even went as far as to block the stairwell with multiple bottles of liquor next to him, creating an impromptu bar scene. The ultimate irony is in all but one case, the trespassers were appalled when towing companies were called or they were asked to leave — on someone else’s property, knowing full well it was not theirs.
When non-residents are on private property, that is easily grounds for trespassing. More subtle ways to try to stop trespassing is to put up private parking cones in parking spots that are off limits, along with reminding unit owners and tenants that their guests should always have parking passes. Without them, they will be towed. Additionally, make sure the towing company is aware of unauthorized users, “No Trespassing” and surveillance signs should be placed around the building. Most importantly, be consistent. Do not decide to police some neighbors over others, which can too easily lead to discrimination accusations.
When audio blurs the line between video surveillance footage
Simply put, if you don’t live there, there is no reason to sit there — unless you are the guest of a resident on that private property. That rule of thumb is easy to follow. But the lines blur when it comes to audio: What if the neighbors are having a private conversation in the gangway of both of your buildings? In Illinois, “All parties to a conversation must give consent before one can record any part of an oral conversation.” So even a conversation between two neighbors who are talking loudly could be a violation of privacy. Same goes for a resident and a neighbor, or two residents.
When condo boards set up cameras on private property, be particularly careful about turning on audio options. Generally speaking — and I am not an attorney regardless of co-writing real estate law blogs so consult a licensed attorney to double-check this — the audio option should never be turned up in such a way as to eavesdrop on someone’s conversations. Now if someone is talking loud enough that others can hear them loud and clear from even an open window or walking by, that’s not the same as fine-tuning the audio on a private conversation — even on private property.
Knowing where to place the camera
When cameras were first installed around my condominium building, I was not living here yet. There were a few complaints of illegal activity that went from rumored to proven. Communal locks were changed, and cameras were installed inside and outside of communal areas. It was more than obvious that owners and tenants were fed up with the unwanted activity.
Generally speaking though, sidewalks and alleys should not be considered private. Private parking lots, deck areas, back and front doors, lobbies and other areas such as this are. However, camera placement gets into rocky territory when it can too easily be aimed toward a resident’s (or neighbor’s) private property.
By Illinois law, “It is unlawful for any person to knowingly make a video record or transmit live video of another person in that other person’s residence without that person’s consent when the recording or transmission is made outside that person’s residence by use of an audio or video device that records or transmits from a remote location.”
But what if the camera is placed in such a way that the goal is not to record inside of someone’s unit? Maybe the lens just happens to be positioned in such a direction that it can catch activities inside of someone’s living space. Immediate answer: Move it. Just as you wouldn’t want someone spying inside of your home, peering through your blinds, or lurking in your private doorway or window, neither should a camera lens. If you cannot find a place in which the camera can avoid recording inside of someone’s home, then that camera shouldn’t be placed there.
Even with neighbors who have trespassed numerous times on our private property, our cameras are not aimed at their doorways and windows. The final camera is placed in such a way that even in a shared gangway area, strangers, neighbors, residents and tenants would have to be walking on our side of the building to be filmed. Whether cameras are placed for preventative measures or to actively decrease proven suspicious behavior, condo boards and property managers should make sure that they’re following state laws beforehand. Otherwise, even if they find legitimate reasons to release questionable footage, if cameras are placed in violation of state laws, they could end up in trouble, too. Install wisely.
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