SALT LAKE CITY — The pen on your neighbor’s desk, the necktie draped on a chair and the smiley face on the refrigerator could be the everyday bric-a-brac of a family home — or they could be spy cameras recording everyone in the room.
Surveillance technology is becoming more sophisticated and less expensive, allowing families to turn their homes, inside and out, into surveillance states.
“I used to joke that every house should have a sign that says, ‘By entering this house, you are consenting to being videotaped and recorded and having all that uploaded to the cloud,'” said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.
While some people install cameras for security, others use them to monitor their nannies and pet sitters, or keep an eye on aging loved ones and their caregivers. Some parents have captured their baby’s first steps on these cameras; others have documented child or elder abuse, theft or infidelity.
But with few laws governing private surveillance, some people are using technology to push up against the lines of propriety, doing things like tracking email to see if someone has forwarded a note to another person or installing cameras in a home that's for sale in order to hear conversations that could help negotiate a higher price.
As such, the technology is subtly affecting human relationships, analysts say. Some people argue that cameras build trust; others maintain that it erodes it. Whitlee Hodson, a nanny in Omaha, Nebraska, says she wouldn’t work for a family that trusted her so little that they felt compelled to use cameras. James Fullerton, a father of four who has 11 cameras, calls them a godsend.
Absent laws that govern cameras and other types of in-home surveillance, people who use the technology are writing their own rules. But privacy experts warn that before installing surveillance devices, people should think carefully about who can get access to the information they collect, as well as how surveillance affects relationships. "It can have a chilling effect on human interactions if you're worried constantly that somebody's listening in," Raicu said.
Smaller and cheaper
Although violent crime in the U.S. has declined, nearly 6 in 10 Americans report that they are concerned every day about their personal safety, according to a recent survey by SafeWise. (Utahns, however, report feeling safer than people in other states, according to the report. Forty percent worry about property crime, compared to 62 percent of other respondents in the West.)
The first generation of security cameras addressed those concerns, and as cameras got smaller and cheaper and live images could be broadcast over cellphones, their use expanded. Walmart, for example, sells a Wi-Fi-enabled camera for under $35 that allows people to not only see what's going on at home, but also to talk to people there.
About 10 percent of U.S. homes with broadband also have a security camera that can send images over the internet, according to Brad Russell, research director of Parks Associates. That’s up 6 percent from 2014. The company predicts that 50 million households will have at least one of these cameras in the next five years.
Perry Myers, owner of two U-Spy stores that sell surveillance equipment for businesses and individuals in Chicago and online, said most people buy cameras to keep their children safe when they’re in the care of others.
Using cameras, parents can monitor everything from “attentiveness to the work ethic to the safety of the child” when a babysitter or nanny is in the house. And people can also monitor the work of housekeepers or pet sitters. “You have two choices: You can bury your head in the sand and hope for the best, or be proactive and get yourself some eyes on the scene,” Myers said.
Myers used a “nanny cam” in his house when his daughter was younger, and uses it today when he wants to see if his daughter, now 12, is at her desk doing homework. He also used a camera two years ago after his mother had a ring and some money stolen from her room at an assisted-living facility.
He put a $20 bill in one of her drawers as “bait” and then installed a camera, which later revealed the identity of the thief. By doing so, he was able to recover the money and the ring. (The thief, an employee at the home, was fired.)
Myers, who is also a private investigator, says he believes the widespread use of cameras are generally good for society, noting that footage from video cameras helped Chicago police charge actor Jussie Smollett with lying to police. Public video footage also recently helped Boston police solve a murder.
Hodson, a 27-year-old nanny in Omaha, Nebraska, said she has no problem with cameras used for law enforcement, but cameras in the private homes where she works are intimate and invasive, she said.
Hodson said she once interviewed for a job in which the parents said they had cameras and said "we will be watching all the time." During the job interview, the father even started watching a video feed from his driveway, where someone had just pulled up. She decided not to work for that family.
"Usually people get these cameras, and they think they're being good and proactive and protective, but what ends up happening is a lot of good nannies quit" if they get constant criticism from parents who are always observing, she said. "If you stand over someone's shoulder long enough, you are going to find something you don't like."
Hodson also said that hidden cameras give parents a false sense of security. "Even if you catch something on tape, you didn't prevent it from happening," she said. It's better, Hodson said, for parents to check a nanny's background and references and have a trial period with parents present before hiring, instead of relying on a camera to reveal a problem.
When bad things happen, however, cameras can keep them from happening again. A Utah nanny, for example, was recently fired and charged with child abuse after footage allegedly showed her kicking and shaking 5-month-old twins.
Fullerton, a software developer and father of children ranging in age from newborn to 6, said he also once fired a babysitter after observing her being rough with his son via a live video feed.
But for Fullerton and his wife, cameras are more than a way to ensure their children are safe with they're with a sitter; they're also an invaluable parenting aid they can use to speak to their children when they're on separate floors and to monitor the children's safety and behavior while they're playing. "I don't think we got them out of a place of fear, but more out of a position of convenience," he said.
The cameras have also bestowed an unexpected bonus: They captured the first steps of two of the Fullertons' children.
The law is murky when it comes to home surveillance, but people who own hidden cameras may be breaking the law if their footage contains audio and they live in a state that, like Massachusetts and California, requires two-party notification of recordings.
Utah is a one-party consent state, which means that recordings are legal so long as one of the people involved (i.e., the person who owns the camera) consents, said David Reymann, a commercial litigator with Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in Salt Lake City.
Wiretapping laws govern audio recordings only, however, and most were written before cellphones and home security cameras were invented, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst specializing in privacy issues with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s just another example of how our privacy laws have failed to keep up with changing technology,” Stanley said.
When it comes to video, there can be a legal difference between cameras pointing out — such as a doorbell camera that films your neighbor cutting his yard across the street — and those recording what’s going on inside your house. Usually, filming outdoors on your property is lawful if the purpose is security, although sharing that video on social media could get you in trouble. Inside, laws generally prohibit filming in any space in which people have “an expectation of privacy,” such as a bathroom.
“You don’t have the right to put a camera in your bathroom and watch your guests taking a shower. But I don’t know of any state regulating how people use their own private surveillance cameras,” Stanley said.
That has led to situations such as people who are selling their homes using cameras to eavesdrop on people walking through the home or standing on the porch discussing the property with their real-estate agent.
“It’s one of those things where it is the person’s home — they have the right to do whatever — but you feel a little violated,” Andie DeFelice, a broker with Savannah-based Exclusive Buyer’s Realty Inc., told Andrea Riquier of MarketWatch last year.
Some Airbnb customers have also been surprised to discover their rentals had cameras, and in many states, landlords are allowed to install cameras in common rooms of the properties they rent.
That said, Myers, with Chicago's U-Spy stores, said few people who have cameras have the time or interest to sit around watching the feeds. "People are going to cameras when there's an incident or an event or some kind of suspicion, not for entertainment," he said.
A matter of trust
In most states, such recordings are legal as long as the homeowner posts a notification somewhere on the property that cameras are in use, said Thal Dixon, owner of Dixon Security Cameras, which is based in Salt Lake City and has locations in Utah and California.
“As long as you tell them you have cameras, you don’t have to say where,” said Dixon, whose business sells a variety of cameras that are concealed within ordinary items, such as an alarm clock, a necktie, sunglasses and even a smiley-face pin that clips on clothing or a refrigerator. (The camera lens is concealed in the right eye of the face.)
But although Dixon offers concealed cameras for people who want them, he generally advises clients to install cameras in plain sight.
“My experience is, just put up the regular camera and be done. Don’t worry about hiding them,” he said. That’s because knowing the cameras are there generally puts people on their best behavior at first. “But after a while, people get immune to cameras and forget that they’re there.”
Besides the law, consumers who install cameras, either secretly or overtly, need to be aware that video sent over the internet might not be secure. Stanley, of the ACLU, noted reports earlier this year that the feeds of Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera may have been watched by members of a research and development firm in Ukraine.
Security breaches can happen if the consumer fails to change the factory-installed password with a unique one that they choose, said Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program in Santa Clara, California. Raicu said America needs broad-based privacy laws that would protect consumers by doing things like requiring manufacturers of cameras to mandate a new password before the device is used.
Fullerton added that manufacturers should also be required to provide automatic security updates, and if the devices do not update automatically, they should be able to shut themselves down. Consumers should research the vulnerabilities of any camera they're thinking of buying and learn what it will take to keep them updated, he said.
The desire to snoop into other people’s lives isn’t new. “People have always had this curiosity, but no means to implement it besides being a peeping Tom or opening other people’s letters," Raicu said.
“But suddenly, you have all these tools, and broadly, it starts to feel like a disrespect for the dignity of other human beings, the fact that you have this power and use it against people who don’t know you’re using it,” Raicu said.
One way to act ethically with security cameras is to not use them covertly.
"As a matter of etiquette, and probably law, you should inform people that they are being recorded, and not be a jerk or creepy," said Stanley, the senior policy analyst with the ACLU.
But Raicu also said people should think carefully about the risks versus the benefits. "There are some very serious implications beyond the personal creeping out. And there's no reason that we should accept this (a surveilled society) as a given." One of her concerns is how parents are using cellphones and cameras to monitor where their children are and what they're doing.
"Sometimes parents, with the best of intentions, end up tracking their own children to the point where I worry that children will think this is normal," she said. "Growing up so surveilled, they won't have the opportunity to really be themselves."
Hodson, the nanny in Omaha, said she and many other child care providers that she knows believe that cameras erode trust, a foundation of good relationships. She currently works for a family with a 2-year-old and another child on the way. "I expect to be here for a long time, but I wouldn't stay if I felt they didn't trust me enough," she said.