Is It Illegal to Record Audio on a Security Camera?

In this post, I look at a controversial and highly misunderstood topic involving security cameras: issues and laws relating to audio.

Do security cameras have audio? 

Most security cameras are built to have audio capability. They have built-in microphones that can pick up sounds within the range of the area being monitored. Some security cameras may also come with audio input for external mic to enable sound recording. 

There are also surveillance cameras that do not have audio in order to comply with federal regulations on the use of hidden cameras.

With audio, security cameras take electronic surveillance and monitoring to a whole new level. When used at home, monitoring babies and pets can be done remotely. It’s also much easier to keep an eye on visitors and unwanted guests.

When used properly, security cameras with audio can provide security and peace of mind. However, in the wrong hands, audio recordings from security cameras can be used to invade people’s privacy. 

Is there a way to tell if a security camera has audio?

Unless you have information about the specs of the public security camera in question, it may be difficult to tell if it has audio just by looking at it. 

Familiarity with the security camera models would be an advantage, but only security cam pros and enthusiasts would have the inclination to do so. Nevertheless, you can try the following:

  • Look for the microphone. If you find tiny sound holes in the camera, it’s highly likely that it is a microphone. Its placement is usually where it can easily pick up sounds and voices within the camera’s field of view.
  • Look for the brand. Not all security cameras have their brands displayed prominently on the camera itself, much less the type and model. If you’re an eagle-eyed person, you might recognize the logo, style, or trademark design. If you identify the brand, you can do a Google search of all the types and narrow it down by security cameras with audio.
  • Take a photo of the security camera and do a Google reverse image search. This enables you to see similar images of security cameras and allows you to cross-check the specs

Is it legal to record audio at home?

Federal law prohibits the use of devices used in the covert recording of voices without the consent of the people involved in the conversation. This applies to devices like audio recorders and security cameras with audio recording capabilities.

Suffice to say, recording audio is illegal if the intent is to intercept a communication with the purpose of sending it interstate or internationally through the mail.

In the case of audio recording at home, the governing laws require a one-party or two-party consent. This varies from state to state, so it’s important to know the laws that apply in specific states to avoid a hefty fine of $250,000 and a five-year jail sentence.

One-party consent refers to one person agreeing to the recording of the audio. This means that even if there are other parties involved, their consent is not necessary as long as one person expresses his or her consent. 

For example, in the state of New York, you can have a body-worn security camera while at home and record conversations with say, a nanny or a house guest. They don’t have to consent to the recording. This is because by wearing the device, you already granted the required one-party consent.

A two-party consent, on the other hand, requires two parties to consent to the audio recording. This means you need to get the permission of another person involved in the recording. For example, if you activate an audio recording device at home, the person being recorded must explicitly give his or her consent. Otherwise, you will face legal implications of your actions. 

You must know the laws in your state to avoid any legal repercussions of audio recording at home. But if you want to avoid the problem entirely, just disable the audio recording function of your security camera.

Is it legal to record audio at work?

The quick answer is no. It is not legal to record audio at work. Federal and state laws consider it illegal to place a recording device at the workplace to secretly record conversations between parties that have not consented to the recording. But it’s important to know the circumstances why this is so. 

The one-party and two-party consent apply in the workplace as well. Offices usually have surveillance cameras installed in different locations, including the lobby, the elevator, and other common spaces in the building.  They are primarily used as part of the security measures of the company or the building administration. While, generally, this is acceptable, it’s when audio recording is enabled that creates legal repercussions.

Security cameras in offices may have audio recording capabilities, so employees are most likely not aware that their conversations are being recorded without their knowledge. There is a varying degree of consent depending on the applicable state law. To date, 40 states require one-party consent and 12 states require two-party consent.

How do you know if security cameras are recording?

Security cameras are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes and some of them are designed to blend in with the surroundings and away from prying eyes. Many of them are hiding in plain sight. 

Cameras that are visible to the public are believed to serve as a deterrent to criminal activities. Cameras in public places are viewed as either a security measure or an invasion of privacy. But in any case, they’re here to stay. 

Determining if a security camera is real or fake is hard enough, so knowing if a security camera is recording can be a bigger challenge. There are no hard and fast rules, but there are tell-tale signs that a security camera is recording.

  • Check if the camera is moving side to side or up and down. Pan-tilt security cameras will move continuously round the clock. Every time it pans or tilts, there’s a distinct but subtle buzz sound that can be heard. If you observe these to be happening, then the camera is most likely recording.
  • Look for the LED lights. It’s safe to assume that companies that invest in security cameras would want the night vision feature. LED lights can be found around the lens of the camera. If the lights turn red, are illuminated, or blinking, it means night vision is activated and most likely recording.
  • Use an electronic bug detector. If you really must know if you’re being recorded, get yourself an electronic bug detector. CCTV IP cameras transmit higher energy radiation that a bug detector can easily discover within a specified range.
  • Check for nearby Wi-Fi devices. Many security cameras have Wi-Fi capabilities, especially those that you can access remotely. If the camera is in the list of Wi-Fi devices, you can tell that it’s active and capable of recording.

Is it legal to record video at home or work?

Video recording is generally allowed in places where a citizen has no “reasonable expectation of privacy”. This means that when you are in a public space, you can be recorded by security cameras or hidden cameras without your expressed permission or consent. For example, it is legal for traffic cameras and security cameras to record you when you’re walking down the street.

When you enter a commercial establishment, you are considered in the store’s public space. You wouldn’t expect privacy when you’re just walking around the store. However, when you are in a changing room or a restroom, the situation changes from being in a public space to being in a private space where you are afforded a reasonable expectation of privacy. In this scenario, recording becomes an invasion of privacy and the store is liable for such breach.

The same rule applies at home. It’s legal to record nannies and caregivers at home as long as they are in what is considered as the home’s public space. Homeowners are within their rights to record when the nanny is in the baby’s room or in the living room. However, the moment the nanny enters a restroom or her personal bedroom, she should be afforded privacy. It is at this point when recording becomes illegal.

At work, the use of surveillance cameras is nothing new. Employers install security systems not just to protect the customers, but also the employees as well. It is also a way to monitor employees in the company premises. The use of video cameras at the workplace is subject to the same regulations as public video recording.

Cameras are not allowed in office areas where employees expect a level of privacy. This includes restrooms and personal workspaces. It can get tricky for employers, but it’s always better to err on the side of safety.

It is also worth noting that employers are not allowed to record union activities in the workplace or elsewhere, as stated in the National Labor Relations Act.

The best way for employers to avoid infringing on the employees’ right to privacy is to inform them that there are video recording devices in the office building. For audio recording, employees’ consent must be sought.

What other ways do employers monitor employees (apart from sound and video.)

One of the reasons why employers install security cameras is to monitor employee activities and engagement in the workplace. But cameras are not enough to check if employees are performing their tasks.

Companies now use different technologies to track attendance, measure productivity, and monitor the internet usage of employees. These kinds of employee monitoring are beneficial to employers and affect the business decision-making process. However, it remains a contentious topic because there’s always the risk of a privacy breach.

Aside from sound and video recording, employers use software and tracking devices to monitor employees. Here are other ways employers keep an eye on their employees:

  • Internet and email usage tracking / Web browsing activities
  • Employee monitored phone call for quality control
  • Mobile employee tracking / GPS tracking
  • Use of proximity cards 
  • Biometrics to monitor attendance, punctuality, tardiness

Employers put employee monitoring systems in place, in one form or another, mainly to determine productivity levels and identify ways to improve customer service. Monitoring gives employers an insight into what employee activities are affecting the company bottom-line so that they can make changes and adjustments in work processes. It creates more transparency on employee activities.

Monitoring employees also has a security element attached to it. It lets employers know that mobile employees are safe. If they aren’t back at the scheduled time, the company can look on the GPS to pinpoint their location. 

Tracking emails and internet usage can also help resolve issues involving sexual harassment accusations and other disputes. Although this may be a rare occurrence, it does help settle disputes and clear up miscommunications.

On the flip side, employee monitoring also has a negative effect on employee morale and stress levels. The constant monitoring and spying can take their toll on employees and it can create an air of distrust. What’s more, the perceived lack of privacy can bring up legal implications. 

As it stands, employee monitoring is considered acceptable because employees at the workplace are in a public space where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. The courts tend to side with employers when it comes to employee monitoring, but when employers overstep the line, they can be held liable for the invasion of privacy.

How do security cameras store audio and video footage?

Surveillance devices like CCTVs and security cameras require storage space for audio and video footage. Because of the need for constant recording, there’s a massive demand for data storage. This is further amplified by the switch from analogue to digital video. HD security cameras provide clearer and crisper video footage, but they also require a bigger storage space.

Security cameras have several storage space options depending on their type and model:

  1. Local storage. Security cameras have a slot for microSD cards so that video and audio footage can be stored locally. MicroSD cards come in 16GB to 128GB capacities, so storage space is quite limited. When the card is full, the storage space can be reused by overwriting previous footage. Another option is to replace the microSD card. This works if there’s no need for long-term storage. It follows the first-in-first-out principle, so older footage cannot be retrieved. 
  1. Cloud storage. For long-term storage space, companies are better off using cloud storage. Audio and video recordings are recorded in the cloud or remote servers for a monthly subscription fee. It is not only convenient, but it removes the issue of limited storage space. The downside is that you have no control of what happens to the remote server, especially when there is an outage. Worse, you have no idea who has access to your data.
  1. DVR built-in storage. Traditional CCTV security camera system makes use of DVR with built-in storage. The storage space depends on the capacity of the hard drive. Typically, the storage capacity is between 1TB to 6TB depending on the surveillance and archiving requirements.