Can you go to jail for using web camera?

Here is a crazy scenario for you :

You start live broadcasting of your living room using Justin.tv or UStream.com then leave house for work. Drunk teenager brakes in into your house, steals your iPod, calls a friend to brag about it and then escapes. This drunk teenager committed a misdemeanor. But you have committed a felony.

For a summary go to Q/A section at the end of this document…

Eavesdropping laws

Eavesdropping law is very old and covers unauthorized audio recordings. According to my research, the “expectation of privacy” exception only applies to still photo images and video recordings without sound. That is why retails stores can monitor and record your shopping activity – you cannot expect privacy in a grocery store. Eavesdropping law prohibits any device that is hearing or recording all or any part of any conversation unless you have the consent of all of the parties to such conversation. In a few states (including Illinois) violation of eavesdropping law is a felony.

Back in 2001, Helen W. Gunnarsson raised similar issue does Illinois’ eavesdropping statute make felons of us all, where she focused on using video camera in public places. I assume all that applies to using a website as “video recorder”.

This is pretty crazy…

Hidden camera laws

There is a lot more then “expectation of privacy”. First, the statues on hidden cameras change from state to state. Here is a summary #1 or summary #2. Second, there is no clear definition on what is a “hidden camera” and what is a “private place”. Some states clearly define it (usually by prohibiting nudity) others leave to the lawyers and judges interpretation.

To be 100% sure that you are not breaking a law when leaving your Webcam ON unattended is

  1. Use Webcam in living space only. Bathroom could be a no-no.
  2. Point Webcam inside your house. Your neighbor has expectation of privacy on his backyard.
  3. Do not record audio. See eavesdropping law discussion above.

And there is more if you installed camera in the office… In 2005 US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a finding that the Anheuser-Busch committed an unfair labor practice when it installed hidden cameras before bargaining with the union. Anheuser-Busch argued that the cameras were a matter of internal security but it did not help.

Passing the liability from the person to website

Since my project is designed for video surveillance, it will be taking unattended pictures most of the time. Can the site be liable for breaking hidden camera laws?

In other words, if a person brakes the privacy law by recording a videoclip with Justin.tv or UStream – can someone go after the website (that records and hosts videos) with criminal or civil charges? In ThePirateBay.org case judge decided that website owners are liable for “helping breaking the law”. Could this logic be applied to video recording sites too?

Questions and answers

Question #1: Can I go to jail for unattended video streaming of my own room (someone walks in or breaks in, but no nudity)?

A: YES, if you record video and audio. Some states have very harsh eavesdropping laws (Illinois). Unknown (pending research) for video only.

Question #2: Can I go to jail for unattended video streaming of the street view out of my window?

A: YES, if you record video and audio. Some states have very harsh eavesdropping laws (Illinois). Unknown (pending research) for video only. Please email me if you have an answer.

Question #3: Are there any known cases of people going to jail for accidental breaking of “eavesdropping laws” or “hidden camera” laws with UStream or Justin.tv (no nudity)?

A: NO

Question #4: What is the legal definition of “hidden camera”? Can you call my Logitech Webcam “hidden” if it sits in plain view on top of the monitor? What if the webcam embedded into laptop screen?

A: Unknown (pending research). Please email me if you have an answer.

Question #5: If I am accused of breaking hidden camera or eavesdropping law – will UStream or Justin.TV help me?

A: No response from either UStream or Justin.tv yet. Though The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press would help to find a lawyer for a journalist in trouble.

Question #6: If I am accused of breaking hidden camera or eavesdropping law – can I sew UStream or Justin.TV for not providing clear guidelines to me?

A: Unknown…

Question #7: When installing security camera – what should I do to make it 100% legal?

A: Do not monitor bathrooms and do not record audio. (Pending research for more details). Please email me if you have a comment

Summary

I am still researching legal implications of live streaming and security video surveillance. If you have a comment – please email me and I will post an update here.

Alexander Uslontsev, ugolog.com


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