Members of the public have become accustomed to being “on camera” in front of the ATM, at traffic lights, in banks, in convenience stores, and -- more and more frequently -- at work. Closed-circuit video monitoring and videotaping are among a number of technological tools used for workplace oversight. An employer has the right to control activity in the workplace to ensure security and to protect the company from theft, drug and alcohol use by employees, poor worker performance and unsafe practices. Employees, on the other hand, have the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. The intent and location of video surveillance, as well as individual state laws, determine its legality.
Federal laws allow video monitoring whether or not employees know or consent to being observed. The employer has the right to videotape to protect security and to prevent theft -- including theft of trade secrets -- and other illegal or inappropriate workplace behavior. In the case of theft, videotape could be preserved as evidence of the crime. Videotaping is considered legal where the cameras are installed in areas accessible to the public, meaning all members of the workforce. In areas where employees have the right to expect privacy, such as locker rooms, restrooms and employee lounges, secretly videotaping without a compelling business-related reason would be considered an invasion of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.
Although they are not legally required to do so, employers who install videotaping equipment should notify employees that they are being observed and videotaped. The notification should specify the areas that are, and are not, under surveillance. The company’s surveillance policies can be a part of the employee handbook, if there is one, or can be posted in various places in the building. Employers could ask their employees to sign a consent acknowledging the videotaping.
Visible surveillance cameras are not illegal as long as they are not installed in a private place. Hidden cameras, or spycams, are also acceptable unless they are placed where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy or if the taping is performed for an illegal purpose. The spycam is also illegal if the installer trespassed on the property to set up the device and make the recording. Because state laws on workplace videotaping vary, employers should consult a lawyer before installing recording equipment.
Federal laws permit recording telephone conversations as long as one of the parties is aware of and consents to the recording. As of August 2012, 12 states require that all parties must consent to the audio recording, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Videotaping that also records sound could be subject to the laws that prohibit wiretapping and eavesdropping.
As a long-time newspaper reporter and staff writer, Kay Bosworth covered real estate development and business for publications in northern New Jersey. Her extensive career included serving as editor of a business education magazine for the McGraw-Hill Book Company. The Kentucky native earned a BA from Transylvania University in Lexington.