SPYING – WHAT IS THE LAW?
NOTE: This article is for entertainment purposes only and does not constitute legal counsel.
So, you want to do some spying. Maybe you suspect a loved one of infidelity, or you know that your neighbor has been throwing his dog’s droppings over the fence into your yard. You’re ready to prove that you’re right. You hit up Spyalot.com, purchase a high-quality spy camera that will help you get the truth – but hesitate. A burning question comes to mind: Is spying on someone a crime? Are there laws against spying?
You want to get the truth, but you should be safe while doing so. This article will give you a brief overview of the do’s and do not’s of spying in the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia. These guidelines will help you observe the world around you while remaining legally safe.
Before we get to the big laws, however, there is one term we must talk about: the reasonable expectation of privacy. This term appears universally in each country listed above. The specifics vary a touch, but it generally means that there are areas in a residence or business that individuals can expect privacy in. These areas include bedrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms. Filming in these places is generally illegal and should be avoided.
USA Spying Laws
The surveillance laws in the States are tricky. Many federal laws regarding spying and espionage, such as the Patriot Act and the Espionage Act of 1917, regulate how the government watches its citizens. For the common man, it’s much murkier. US spy laws vary from state to state. The best way to ensure that you will not face legal troubles is to research your state’s unique laws – but there are a few tips we can give you that will generally keep you safe.
While in your home, it’s legal to record other persons without their consent. Want to make sure that the nanny isn’t slipping silverware into her pocket? A pin camera on the side of a cookie jar would be perfectly legal. When putting up cameras in your home, you must make sure that you don’t post cameras in places where the recorded subject could have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
There is, however, one important federal law that covers all states: You may not record conversations without consent. The federal law in question is US Code Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 119. The law states that “Any person who…manufactures, assembles, possesses, or sells any electronic, mechanical, or other device, knowing or having reason to know that the design of such device renders it primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
The TLDR is that you cannot record another person’s communications without consent. It doesn’t matter who they’re communicating with, keep clear of audio. But visual recording is fine.
Of course, all of that refers to cameras inside your home. What about outside? Laws are far more flexible when posting security cameras outside, hidden or not. In general, people in public are willingly giving up some privacy, so you can safely record them there. Likewise, you can wear a hidden camera in the park or similar spaces. Just be aware that in some states, wearing hidden cameras while trespassing on private property can lead to fines. As a final note with outside cameras, the same reasonable expectation of privacy applies. If you’re going to mount a camera on the side of your house to watch your backyard, be careful that it doesn’t point into your neighbor’s bedroom in the process.
General tips for surveillance in the USA:
- You can legally record video footage in your home as long as you are not filming in areas where your subject would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
- It is a federal crime to record an individual’s audio without their consent.
- In public places, you have much more freedom to record as people in public are already giving up some amount of privacy, but you still need to observe their reasonable expectation of privacy.
- Surveillance laws vary widely from state to state. To be safe, you should research your state’s laws to ensure your spying is legal.
UK Spy Laws
The first thing one should note when discussing if it’s legal to use a hidden camera in the UK is the same guidelines of reasonably expected privacy apply. Avoid the bedrooms and bathrooms, folks. Again, this means to watch where you post your external CCTV systems so you don’t accidentally infringe on another’s privacy.
However, there are a few big differences between the US and the UK. Firstly, the UK does not have specific laws targeted towards surveillance as the USA. In the UK, a citizen’s right to privacy is covered by the Human Rights Act 1998. Specifically, Article 8 of the Humans Rights Act protects a citizen’s right to a private and family life, home, and correspondence.
There are a few worthwhile notes about posting security cameras. Firstly, you can post covert cameras around your own home, property, or business. It is illegal to place a camera in another’s residence, however. You can operate a CCTV on your property, but any CCTV system that records public spaces must be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office. And, of course, you must make sure that these cameras don’t violate anyone’s privacy.
At this point, it sounds a lot like the guidelines posted for the US. However, there is a large difference between the two, which lies in their laws about audio recording. As previously mentioned, you may not record conversations without consent in the US. In the UK, you may record conversations you have been a part of. This is called one-party consent.
There are several restrictions that you must follow, however. Firstly, note that any recorded calls cannot be sold or given to any third parties, which is illegal and could lead to steep fines. This would also include publishing the recording on the Internet to sites like YouTube. If you record a phone call or other communication without the consent of the second party, make sure that it is for your personal use.
All of this applies to personal use. If you’re a business owner trying to record phone calls with clients, the laws are much stricter. The Telecommunications Regulations 2000 places several restrictions on when a business can record without an individual’s consent.
General tips for surveillance in the UK:
- Don’t place cameras in private areas.
- If you want to operate a CCTV on your property, it must be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
- The Human Rights Act 1998 provides much of the legal protection for UK citizens; Article 8 primarily covers the rights given to protect a citizen’s private life.
- Other important legislatures include the Data Protection Act and the CCTV Code of Practice.
If you’re a business owner, you must also follow the Telecommunications Regulations
Australian Spy Laws
The surveillance laws in Australia are a little stricter than those of the previous countries. One piece of legislature, the Invasion of Privacy Act 1971, does allow one to record conversations they participate in. If you record a conversation you are not involved in, however, it is an offense. Additionally, once you have obtained the recording, there are limitations on how you can use it. The recording can only be published or communicated between people if they were a part of the original conversation, or if publishing and sharing the recording is for the good of public interest or the legal needs of the person who made the recording.
When recording a conversation, you should also be aware that telephone interception is a Federal offense. Telephone interception occurs when a phone call is recorded with a device planted directly into the phone or between the body of the phone and its handset. To tape a phone call without committing this offense, you should either hold a recording device near the phone’s mouthpiece or put the call on speakerphone and record the sound from there. Make sure your recording device is separate from the phone in question.
When it comes to video recording, we find ourselves in a situation similar to the one from the United States where laws vary across states and territories. Generally, one should be careful about what they record. If you have a hidden camera in public, you’ll usually be okay as long as you only record video. When you record audio, you could find yourself in a breach of confidence when recording a conversation that other parties considered confidential. Even in public, two parties can reasonably assume their conversation is private, and they could try and take action against the individual who filmed them.
If you want to keep an eye on your property with a spy camera to make sure that it’s safe and your neighbors aren’t trespassing and damaging your hard-earned property, you’ll find that the laws here are similar to those in other countries. You can post surveillance cameras on your property, and you may use those cameras to observe areas off your property, such as the public street. However, these cameras should not be able to see people when they can expect privacy. Generally, you’ll also want to keep these recordings to yourself and not distribute them to third parties or use them for extortion. There are exceptions; there’s no penalty to sharing footage that shows abuse, property damage, or other crimes to local law enforcement.
General tips for surveillance in Australia:
- Cameras on your legally owned property are fine so long as they respect the reasonable privacy of others.
- To legally record a phone call without consent in Australia, you must be a part of the conversation. Recording a private conversation you are not a part of is illegal.
- It is illegal to record a phone call with telephone interception.
- Laws regarding audio and visual surveillance vary from state to state; be sure to thoroughly read your state’s laws before recording.
Canadian Spy Laws
In Canada, you’ll find a slight difference in the legality of security cameras on your property. In the previous countries we have discussed, the installation of personal security cameras on your property has been legal unless you’re violating the privacy of your neighbors by pointing your camera at their bedroom or similarly sensitive areas. In Canada, however, there is an additional stipulation: You should have your on-property security cameras pointing at your property and avoid pointing them at your neighbor’s private property. This protects the other party’s privacy in locations like their backyard or front porch that are in the open, but still part of their property.
In Canada, like the US, it is unlawful to record a conversation without consent. According to the Criminal Code, “Every one who, by means of any electro-magnetic, acoustic, mechanical, or other device, wilfully intercepts a private communication is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.” However, the Code does note that “A person who has the consent to intercept, express or implied, of the originator of the private communication or the person intended by the originator thereof to receive it” may record the communication.
Notably, this means that any surveillance cameras on your property should only capture video, not audio. The private communications covered by the Criminal Code are those between two persons in Canada speaking with one another under the reasonable assumption that their conversation will be private. This is similar to the case in Australia referring to the breach of confidence. Even if the conversation occurs in a public space, such as a park, the parties can reasonably assume that nobody nearby is recording or intruding upon their conversation. If you are going to record a conversation like this, you must obtain the permission of at least one party.
Tips for Canada:
- Audio recording of a private conversation is illegal with the consent of at least one party involved in the communication.
- It is legal to post security cameras on your property; however, they should observe only your private property and not be pointed towards that of your neighbors.
- The “private communication” protected by the Criminal Code excludes more general sound monitoring that is not reasonably intended to be kept private, such as at a public concert.
- Different providences have different laws; research yours before recording.
The ways one can legally observe other people with hidden cameras and audio recording devices varies widely from country to country. Even within the individual countries, those laws vary in strictness. This article is meant to be an overview of the laws in each country and should not be taken as legal advice. Always ensure you read the laws specific to your country and region before utilizing your equipment from Spyalot.com.