Ask LH: Am I Allowed To Secretly Film Roommates Suspected Of Stealing?

Dear Lifehacker, I live in an apartment with three flatmates and I suspect one of them may be stealing from me. The problem is, I don't know which one! Am I allowed to set up a surveillance camera without telling them? What are the laws around this? Thanks, Big Brother

Surveillance camera picture from Shutterstock

Dear BB,

As usual, the caveat about receiving advice from a non-lawyer applies here — we don’t pretend to know everything about Australia’s privacy laws and aren’t qualified to offer proper legal advice. With that out of the way, these are the rules as we understand them.

In all states and territories, it is forbidden to record video in a location where a reasonable person would expect to be afforded privacy. If you live in NSW or the ACT, you also cannot record audio conversations without prior consent. (So forget about tying to catch them slagging you off.) You can find an overview of the privacy laws in each state and territory here.

So what constitutes a reasonable person's expectation of privacy? This obviously covers bedrooms and bathrooms, but a communal living space is somewhat greyer. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of legal precedent in this area, so the laws governing home surveillance aren't terribly well defined.

Personally, we think you should err on the side of caution. Secretly filming your roommates in the privacy of their own home is unlikely to be viewed favourably by police, even if you catch them doing something naughty. Plus, if the situation ever gets out, it will likely cause significant fallout in your social circle — for every friend who supports your actions, there will be a few who think it was incredibly creepy.

You might be better off setting up the camera in plain view, complete with a sign. (If it's just pointing at the fridge, cupboard or your bedroom door, they can't really complain that their privacy is being violated.) This method won't catch them in the act, but it will put an end to the thieving.

We're keen to hear from readers on this topic. Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you resolve it? Let BB know in the comments!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Rather than catch them with security. Is there another way to approach it? Can you setup some sort of 'honeypot' to entice them to the activity, then later verify that it was them? What are you going to do once you catch them? Will this sour a lease - can they be evicted due to a clause?

    Not exactly sure what is being stolen. But you could also keep the items in a more secure area.

    surely its within your rights to set up a camera in your personal space in the flat, aka your bedroom, hell just tell your flatmates your going to do it even if you don't, claim its because of a recent rise in thefts so you don't have to risk offending them and see if the thefts stop, if not actually setup the camera

    Honey pot
    - include a GSP tracker in what ever you use to entice the thief. ( $15 off ebay +$2sim )
    they are the size of a key fob
    - UV Paint coat you Honey object in fresh UV paint then use a strong UV light to find where it went.
    best to ignore bed stains thou.
    - Motion detector with Sim MSG fob, again ebay $20. set up in your room get an alert when the thief acts also you could set up a still camera ( small & cheap ) link it to a raspberry pi and the net and you have a full blown home security system with live feed to you phone.
    Just be sure to place a sign on you bedroom door that states that video surveillance is in use.
    Remember your room is YOUR private space and that is were you should record, anywhere else in a share house would need to be agreed to by all occupants.

    I wish I could edit that comment but I cant so I'll add more : )
    For NSW its not much of a read but worth checking out as it covers tracking, audio and optical.
    Surveillance Devices Act 2007 No 64
    Sect 8, 2 c
    sect 9, 1 b
    Sect 11, 2 a (iii)
    Sect 12 , 2 B/C
    Still if you were my roommate I'd find you slightly creepy.
    Good luck

    I think there are a bunch of questions that needs to be asked: "Stealing what", "From where", "Have you discussed the issue with your flatmates", "Is anyone else having stuff stolen", "How often is it happening", "How well do you know these people", "Could your mind be playing tricks on you"?

    The answers to those kind of determine whether this is actually a real problem and what solution to take. If it's "stealing food from the fridge" then you don't go video for a solution, you sit down and talk about it, or label your food containers.

    Is it stuff that was left in a lounge (or other common area), could it be accidentally thrown out? Or could someone have thought it was actually theirs? Could someone (or something - some birds are notorious thieves) from outside get to it (ie: was it on a balcony/garden)? Again, I think sitting down and discussing the issue is much better than surveillance.

    If there is valuable stuff going missing from a common area then maybe discussing the issue will be more valuable. You might find that your flatmates are losing stuff too and they'd be happy to video surveil the lounge.

    If it's stuff from your room (especially valuable items) then it's more serious and you should probably be considering the police not half-assed surveillance. That said, I'd think (from a normal person pov) that having a motion activated cam in your own room would be fine.

    As for their rooms or the bathroom, I can't imagine any possible scenario where it'd be a good idea trying to put a camera in them. I'd imagine you'd wind up in jail if you did. If not at the very least you'd be kicked out of the flat.

    Final point, I mentioned "could your mind be playing tricks on you" at the start. Depending on what's going missing this could be a very real answer. I can't count the number of times I've thought I've had money go missing but up on deeper reflection I've been able to account for it. The "Oh yeah that's right I spent $50 on petrol" moment...

    Install a lockable door handle, i did that and keep the original under my bed, no damage done to the property, also a safe is a good idea for smaller items, and consider fixing it to some furnature you own to make it harder to move

    If you trust your housemates that little that you're even contemplating covert filming, it's time to either evict them or move yourself.

    It implies you're either unwilling to have an upfront conversation with them, or you expect not to get an honest answer. Either way, the relationship is sufficiently soured that it's time to move on.

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