Home security? Super-important. Privacy? Also important. What happens when the two collide, and someone starts using their home-security cameras to invade others’ privacy and protect their packages from door thieves at the same time?
And, no, I’m not talking about Ring. I’m talking about the thorny issue of entering a living situation with a roommate, or renting from a landlord, who has security cameras set up around your home or apartment.
I’d like to share some learnings from a recent incident in my own living situation. (And if you have any advice for me other than moving out—already checking that box—I’m all ears!)
Here’s the setup: I live in a pretty safe corner of Silicon Valley, renting a room in a house from some friends of mine. They’ve installed cameras all around the house—mostly the exterior—to add a little extra protection from potential door thieves, hit-and-runs (which has happened to a former roommate’s car), and who knows what else.
I generally find anything beyond a porch camera to be a bit excessive, and my house has cameras in the front, cameras in the back, and cameras in the garage—you name it, we’re probably recording it. These recordings are all kept for an unknown amount of time by my roommate/landlord, the house’s owner and resident technological expert.
Here’s where I get a bit bothered. I don’t like feeling tracked, nor do my friends or fiancé appreciate that these cameras allow people to know when they come over, how long they stay and, even worse, record anything they say within the cameras’ vicinity. It feels invasive, and complications from this setup are part of my reason for moving out.
There’s absolutely nothing I can do to better this situation, short of going through an annoying legal process that won’t really amount to anything (and feels pointless, since I’m leaving). However, I do have a few takeaways from this useful-setup-turned-stalker-system that I think are worth considering the next time you move to a new place or pair up with a new roommate.
Demand shared access to home-security cameras
This one’s a no-brainer, but it can be a difficult conversation to have after the fact. If you’re moving into someone’s house, and they employ security cameras, webcams, doorbell camera, or some other crazy surveillance solution to increase the location’s safety, it’s only fair that you ask—if not politely demand as a condition of your lease—to access what the cameras see and record.
While you might never actually need or want to look at the footage, knowing that you can pull up the same feed or recordings as your roommates, or your landlord, will put you two on equal footing. That won’t stop them from spying on you or tracking who comes and goes, but it feels a little less creepy if you can also see exactly what they and the cameras can see.
Ask your roommates or landlord to show you the cameras
Whether you can or can’t gain access to the footage (or feed) from security cameras placed around your home, you should at least know where these devices are located. Though doubtful, maybe your roommates or landlord will even let you put up a little sign to alert guests about these recording devices.
Obviously, a porch camera is going to be pretty easy to figure out, but you and your guests should know if cameras are deployed anywhere else around the house—a garage, a hallway, the backyard hangout area, above your toilet, et cetera.
If your roommates or landlord control the home networking setup...
Here’s the tough part. Your roommates or landlord can show you the obvious cameras around your house or shared apartment, and even grant access to the footage, but there’s nothing to stop them from setting up a camera elsewhere and not telling you. I know, we’re getting into creepy-slash-James-Bond territory now. And if you can’t trust your roommates or landlord, why are you living with them?
That said, I’m a big fan of equality in living situations. One person shouldn’t be allowed to overlord the home network configuration. Ask for access to the router (or whatever your more-complicated setup might be), and you can check for yourself if it’s assigning an IP address to any cameras around the house that you can’t see. (And if that doesn’t work, or the camera doesn’t just pop up in your operating system’s network window, there’s always Angry IP Scanner...)
Yes, your roommate or landlord could set up some closed-network solution to record what you’re doing off of the home network. And if that’s the case, you should probably already have other signs indicating they’re a psychopath. And then you should move out. Right now.
Pretend you’re at an Airbnb
While you’re moving in, and you have the place to yourself, consider flipping into “Airbnb mode” and looking around, Sherlock-style, for any extra cameras around your house or apartment. Odds are good you won’t find anything, and if you do, hopefully it’s only in the common room to record what your cat or dog does during the day. (Spoiler: They sleep.)
Do a little legal research
Laws vary by location, but generally speaking, your roommates or landlord shouldn’t be putting cameras where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy—like your room or bathroom, for example. A landlord can install outdoor surveillance cameras, but if they’re capturing audio, does that technically violate your local area's wiretapping law? I’d check.
If a landlord isn’t using that footage to check for missing packages, and instead using it to track your whereabouts, that could fall under tenant harassment.
If you’re truly concerned about your landlord or roommates’ practices, I recommend keeping a log of any interactions you have related to security cameras they have in place around the house. If you can acquire any proof of how they might be using those cameras in a way that’s not entirely on the up and up, even better.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t break the bank by calling up the nearest local lawyer you can find, but perhaps there’s a legal firm specialising in tenants’ rights that’s willing to give you a quick, free consultation—likely to tell you that you don’t have much legal ground to stand on, but you never know.
The situation changes a bit if you’re a lodger instead of a tenant—renting a room from a house or apartment when your landlord also lives in said location, versus renting it when they do not. If that’s your deal, then what’s defined as “a reasonable expectation of privacy” probably isn’t your kitchen, only the single room you rent.
It’s still worth checking this out if you’re truly bothered by security cameras around your living situation, but the odds of you being able to combat this via the courts (or a sternly phrased letter) get a little lower.
Try talking it out with your troublesome roommates or landlord
I’ve saved this step for last when it really should be first, but I find that if you’re the kind of person who is stewing over webcams around your house, odds are good that you simply haven’t had a chance to talk about this with your landlord/roommates/whoever.
I’m not saying that this will lead to the outcome you desire, but maybe expressing your concerns in a calm, rational fashion will defuse an otherwise tense situation that the concept of spying, tracking, and webcams can bring up. I never made it to this point, but I hope you’ll be able to if you’re in as sticky a surveillance situation as I’ve been.