A massive 40-year, multicountry study says security cameras work as deterrents — especially against property crime and vehicle break-ins.1 This is most welcoming news for homeowners who were always wondering if the $400 they shelled out for their top-of–the-line DIY home security system was money well spent. Now we have the proof.
We’ve written in depth about where to put your security cameras, which makes sense. For cameras to deter thieves, the thieves have got to be able to see them. But what about where not to put your security cameras? I’m not just talking about theft deterrence here. Your property may be private, but there are laws governing where you can stick up surveillance cameras and what you can record, particularly if the cameras in question aren’t in plain view.
In this home security guide, we’re going to take a good look at hidden cameras in and around homes. We’ll cover:
- What a hidden camera is
- Where hidden cameras might be illegal
- Video versus audio recording
- States with special hidden camera laws
FYI: Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that a home with an alarm was enough to deter 60 percent of the 422 convicted burglars they interviewed in a landmark 2012 study.2
What Is a Hidden Camera?
If you’re looking for the legal definition of a hidden camera, you’ll be looking for a while. You won’t find one in the constitution, obviously — we didn’t have indoor plumbing until well into the 18th century, let alone thief-busting home security systems.
U.S. federal law is also rather vague on the matter of clandestine video. But as a general rule of thumb, installing cameras in your home — hidden or otherwise — is ok, as long as you’re not invading someone else’s privacy.
There’s actually a legal test for this called “reasonable expectation of privacy.”3 If a person can reasonably assume they’re alone, the test goes, you can’t record them. Here are two examples that should make this crystal clear.
Let’s say you have a camera hidden in your doorbell that captures footage of a hoodlum on your porch. This is perfectly fine. But say you hide the same camera in a plant in your bathroom, and it records the babysitter on the toilet. That’s an invasion of privacy.
That’s basically how it works, but it isn’t the end of the story. States have their own hidden camera laws, which we’ll get into in just a moment. But before we dive into the legal nitty-gritty, let’s take a quick look at some pretty cut-and-dried cases where you might get into trouble if you surveil people in or around your house.
Did You Know? The global video surveillance market grew from $6.7 billion in 2006 to $15.4 billion in 2016, with China leading the pack, per IHS Markit.4 In 2023, the market is expected to break the $47 billion barrier and keep climbing to over $75 billion by 2027.5
4 Places Hidden Cameras in Your Home Might Be Illegal
So you really want to install a nanny cam. We don’t really recommend spy cameras except as a last resort. A far better option is to invest in a few smaller, less-conspicuous wireless cameras like the Blink Mini or SimpliSafe’s SimpliCam. But if you are planning on hiding a camera in the tissue box, just keep in mind that while your home is your castle, people still have a right to privacy there, especially in the following four situations.
Any Cameras in Bathrooms, Showers, or Private Spaces
In 2018, a CBS executive named Daniel Switzen was caught with a nanny cam in his bathroom … recording his nanny. Switzen was eventually sentenced to five years of probation and is now a registered sex offender for life.6
The law was pretty clear here. If you put a hidden camera somewhere in your house where visitors don’t expect to be surveilled, you’re committing a crime and can be punished severely.
You can add bedrooms, showers, locker rooms, and hotel rooms to this list. In the case of bedrooms, we’re talking about situations where guests are unaware of your camera, or, in the case of kids, don’t consent to it. If you want to surveil yourself, hey, you do you.
Outdoor Cameras Aimed at Your Neighbor’s Home
You have a bit of leeway as to what and whom your outdoor security cameras can capture, which is a good thing. The wide angle lens on a 4K Lorex outdoor camera — or any of the best outdoor security cameras really — can see a lot. Even so, there’s a limit to what you’re allowed to record.
If your camera picks up the side yard or even the porch or door of the neighbor’s house, you should be within your rights. Of course, there are states, municipalities, and maybe even residential codes that would beg to differ. But, in general, you aren’t invading your neighbor’s privacy this way. The same holds true if you happen to record someone on the sidewalk or street strolling by your property.
However, you can’t aim your porch camera into the Johnson’s bedroom or bathroom — or even into their kitchen window. These are spaces where the Johnsons can expect, and have the right to, privacy.
Pro Tip: If you’re not sure if whether your outdoor camera is violating the law, check out our guide to installing home security cameras for an overview of best practices.
Are Doorbell Cameras OK?
Doorbell cameras aren’t exactly hidden. Granted, there are plenty of dumb thieves who can look a video doorbell right in the eye without realizing they’re on camera. Porch pirates targeting homes aren’t typically MENSA material. More importantly, your front porch isn’t a place where people are expecting privacy. So, if a prowler on your porch ends on a compilation of Stupidest Thieves Caught on Camera and he sues you for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, expect the judge will laugh him right out of court.
Can I Install a Baby Monitor in My Infant’s Room?
Short answer: yes. You aren’t going to get into any trouble keeping tabs on your sleeping angel — though you might want to read through these tips for keeping hackers and pervs off your network before you set yours up. But you do want to apply the same rule of thumb that you apply to other bedrooms and to the baby’s room: if a caregiver or relative is in there, you can’t record them without their consent.
FYI: While you may be in your rights to record house visitors and random passersby in non-private spaces on your property, you can’t send that footage to anyone other than the police, and you can’t upload it to YouTube. Either could land you in trouble with the law.
Audio Recordings: Legal or Illegal?
If you’ve installed a top security camera in your home, chances are you’ve got a nifty feature called two-way audio. That’s what allows you to ask a persona non grata on your porch what the heck they’re doing there via your camera’s smartphone app, even when you’re at work or at the supermarket. So what about those conversations? Legal or illegal?
You’re not doing anything wrong here, whether your camera is small and hard to find or shooting 2,000 lumens of light at the lurker in your rose bush like the latest Ring Floodlight Cam.
Just keep in mind that in most other scenarios, you can’t record conversations if you’re not physically present. That’s called the one-party consent rule, and it’s enforced in all 50 states.
FYI: We’ve done a full rundown of the best hidden security cameras by looking at weight, dimensions, and more.
Two-Party Consent States
Eleven states require mutual consent to record audio. That means that not only do you have to be there in the flesh to record a conversation, but the person you’re recording has to consent to the recording, too. Those states are: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Did You Know? Other exceptions to the one-party consent rule are the government wiretapping the Mafia and, apparently, Amazon recording our private conversations behind our backs.
States Where Hidden Security Cameras Aren’t Legal
In most states, the “reasonable expectation of privacy” rule we discussed above holds sway. That is, hidden cameras are OK inside your home, except in places where a person expects privacy, i.e., bathrooms, showers, bedrooms, etc.
However, the following states are exceptions, with stricter laws on hidden cameras.7 If you live in one of these states and thinking about installing a nanny cam in your home, consult your state law or a lawyer to cover yourself fully. In fact, no matter what state you live in, it’s a good idea to consult your local laws.
- Arkansas (only legal with consent)
- Delaware (only legal with consent)
- Indiana (only legal with consent)
- Michigan (only legal with consent)
Pro Tip: In most states, even the ones with stricter surveillance laws, the legality of hidden cameras boils down to the “reasonable expectation of privacy.” How that’s interpreted in the state courts — whether it only covers bathrooms and the like or extends to living rooms and other more open areas of the home — will ultimately determine if your hidden camera is legal or not.
A powerful, latest-gen home security camera is a wonderful thing. Perched outside our doors, those cameras really do keep prowlers away. International studies, and our own home safety surveys and conversations with law enforcement, bear this out.
Bringing cameras inside our homes is another kettle of fish, however. This is because most visitors aren’t expecting to be recorded while they’re sitting in our living rooms — and certainly not by the porcelain duck on the mantel. While state laws get murky here and require a careful look, there is a real risk that your nanny cam might get you in trouble.
But there’s an easy fix for this. Unless you live in one of a handful of states where hidden cameras are strictly verboten (see above), in most cases you can cover yourself by simply letting visitors know about your secret security cameras. If they’re not comfortable with the situation, it’s on them to consent or stay away.
Even better? Forget playing 007, and use your security cameras to do what they were carefully and exquisitely designed to do: keep criminals off your property and out of your house.
In most states, yes, as long as you’re not recording people in places where they can reasonably expect privacy, i.e., the bathroom.
Yes and no. If your outdoor camera happens to catch peripheral footage of your neighbor’s yard, porch, or even their door, you’re probably OK. If you deliberately aim your camera at their house and get caught, on the other hand, you might want to lawyer up.
In most states, as long as you’re there in person, you can record a conversation you’re a party to. In a handful of states (see our list above), all parties involved need to consent.
This is a personal decision. If you do decide to install a hidden camera to observe your child’s caregiver, we recommend using it for deterrence, not to catch them in the act. In other words, letting them know the camera is there is better than hiding it.
There are no laws prohibiting infant video monitoring, so you should be OK. However, to play it safe, you should warn any visitors to your baby’s room that they may be recorded.