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Big Brother is Watching You…But Does Your Building Have a Legal Right to Install a Surveillance System?

Real Estate Legality

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” (Orwell, 1984).

George Orwell’s 1984 novel closely mirrors today’s reality as surveillance cameras are now increasingly in our residential buildings. Most commonly, camera surveillance in co-ops and condos is utilized to ensure residents’ safety by recording twenty-four hour footage in public spaces (i.e. lobby, hallways, elevators, basements). Yet, these cameras serve other functions in addition to deterring crime.  They also help your building enforce its rules regarding guests, (which is especially helpful during the holidays, where residents invite a myriad of guests for holiday parties), and to facilitate the overall management of the building. For example, if your co-op or condo undergoes construction, it is useful to have cameras recording to monitor workers entering and exiting the building, and to record any property damage.

Traditionally, buildings would employ guards to sift through lengthy surveillance tapes. Today in the modern age of technology, building surveillance records footage digitally, making it easier to pinpoint events and protect residents and the property. These cameras are implemented by boards to maintain a safe environment, yet as we have previously addressed, some residents remain skeptical of their building’s security systems and have gone as far to sue the boards for invasion of privacy. However, unlike in George Orwell’s novel, and with certain notable exceptions (like the neighbor that installs cameras that look directly into your apartment), these cameras are not installed for the purpose of spying on residents, but instead to maintain a level of safety. As Paul Gottsegen, the president of the Halstead Management Company, has stated: “It’s more important to know who is going into the billiard room than what they are doing on the billiard table.”

All of their advantages aside, the question remains as to whether co-ops and condos have the legal right to install surveillance systems. Under the business judgment rule, it is permissible for the board of co-ops and condos to do what they deem necessary to protect residents and the property. Therefore, if camera surveillance is believed to be essential by the board to provide adequate safety for residents, than it is permitted in public areas. Advice for board members:

  • Paper it: Implement written policy measures on security and surveillance;
  • Notify: Disclose these measures with all residents;
  • Keep it legal: Do not use eavesdropping devices in order to comply with NY Penal law §§ 250.00, 250.05.

If you believe your board is going too far down the Big Brother hole, you can always challenge their decisions through litigation, but a less expensive option would be to elect a new board that reflects the building’s values.

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