Video Camera Ethics

I have a number of clients that now offer security products, many which come with video cameras that can be used at the front door or elsewhere at a customer location. There are a lot of discussions nationwide about the ethics involved with providing video cameras. Today’s blog discusses topics you should consider if you offer, or plan to offer video cameras.

ISP Access to Video. If an ISP provides customer video cameras, there are numerous concerns if your employees are able to access and watch customer video feeds. Your company could be subject to large legal liabilities if it ever came to light that any of your employees are watching customer videos. It’s incredibly tempting for employees to spy on their exes or watch their neighbors, and your ISP would be financially liable, and possibly even criminally liable if you enable violations of customer privacy.

Most, but not all customers are going to want you to record video. They will want to look at past events such as a burglary. Customers might just want to glance back through home activity every evening. But customers also are going to want privacy so that they are the only ones who can watch video, so you’ll have to come up with some method that assures that privacy. This is not as easy as it sounds, because typically any kind of archive that is available to customers also is probably accessible by your employees.

If you can develop a system that guarantees the desired privacy you will have a marketing advantage while also reducing your liabilities.

Spying on Neighbors. One of the most discussed topics in the home security industry is the ability of cameras to inadvertently watch activity at neighbors. For example, a front door camera can usually be placed so that it only sees people who approach the front door but can alternately be angled to see everything in front of the house including the neighbors across the street.

Setting cameras to see the whole street raises a number of ethical issues. You’re first inviting customers to watch their neighbors if you provide a wider view of the front of the home. You also are creating a video camera recording of events that happen beyond the boundary of the customer’s premise. It’s not hard to imagine seeing every passing car and every pedestrian that passes in front of a home. There are incidents in the news of homeowners accusing innocent bypassers of bad behavior simple because they capture video of them walking past their home often.

Law Enforcement. There are many law-enforcement issues in the gray area. There are a few specific laws that give law enforcement the ability to subpoena telephone call records or to wiretap phone calls or internet connections. There are not yet many such laws that have been updated to include video camera recordings.

For example, is an ISP obligated to turn over video from indoor cameras to law enforcement, particularly if the customer doesn’t approve it? There is probably some precedent to allow law enforcement to look at past recordings with a subpoena, but it’s a legal gray area to talk about giving live access to indoor cameras to law enforcement. To what degree would an ISP be violating customer privacy if they grant law enforcement access and there is no clear law authorizing video camera access?

There are also local police departments with programs where homeowners give law enforcement the passwords to allow them to view live feeds from outdoor and front door cameras. This essentially gives law enforcement the ability to watch the street or watch a neighbor without a subpoena.

I’m sure that over time that some of these issues will be clarified through legislation or regulatory rulings. But for now, there are a lot of gray areas. If you are going to offer a video camera service. you might want to determine your policies up-front rather than waiting for the inevitable issues to confront you.

2 thoughts on “Video Camera Ethics

  1. There’s also the time and aggravation every time to find the footage every time somebody subpoenas footage for a criminal case, a traffic accident, vandalism, etc. This is especially true if the exact time is not known.

    If you’re going to be exposed these requests, then you’ll want a retrieval system that makes it easy to honor requests instead of wading through hours of video.

    Our town’s traffic signal cameras are just used for real-time traffic control. The operators don’t want to spend all their time looking at archival footage for freedom of information requests. Solution: they only keep data for a short period. (There are also privacy reasons to not store camera footage forever.)

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