We live in an increasingly security-conscious society. It has become more and more common for condominium and cooperative buildings to have, at a minimum, security cameras posted in entrances and exits, elevators, and lobbies, but even then, there are occasionally unit-owners or shareholders who want more cameras and specifically, want cameras installed right outside their apartment doors.
Safety aside, what about an individual’s right to privacy? Security cameras in a building’s common areas do not violate a right to privacy. Under New York law, there is no common law right to privacy. Instead, the right to privacy is governed exclusively by Sections 50 and 51 of the New York Civil Rights Law, which only provide a cause of action to an individual whose name, portrait, picture or voice is used for trade or advertising without that individual’s written consent. Further, Article 250 of New York’s Penal Law imposes criminal penalties for “offenses against the right to privacy,” through eavesdropping, wiretapping, tampering with private communications, and unlawful surveillance, which is further defined as filming someone in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. While an individual absolutely has a reasonable expectation of privacy in his own home, in multi-unit buildings such as condos and coops, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in shared or common areas, such as the lobby, stairwells, elevator and hallways.
The issue becomes murkier when the camera is owner-installed. Each building has its own separate set of requirements, and authorization for anything in a coop or condo requires strict authorization within the building’s by-laws and rules.
Let’s say that you believe one of your neighbors has installed cameras that show activity beyond the hallway directly in front of their apartment and that those cameras may also record audio. What can you do? Verify whether or not the board initially approved the installation. Hire a private investigator yourself or go to your building’s board and request that a private investigator be hired to issue reports detailing the cameras’ viewpoints and whether audio is being recorded. If audio is being recorded, then your neighbor has violated the Federal Wiretap Act, which prohibits the intentional interception of any “wire, oral or electronic communication” in addition to Article 250 of New York’s Penal Law. Finally, just as the board can provide authorization, so can they take it away and prohibit an action that was previously permissible.