Is It Legal to Install Cameras in the Workplace for Surveillance?

Understand when and where cameras are allowed in the workplace 

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on June 21, 2022

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Generally, it’s legal for your employer to use video cameras in the workplace. No federal or state law absolutely prohibits the practice, and there are many reasons why cameras can be beneficial, such as monitoring the security of employees and customers.

However, there are important limits on where employers can install cameras and the purposes employers can use them for. In some cases, an employee’s expectation of privacy outweighs an employer’s interest in surveillance.

To avoid legal issues, employers and employees need to understand when cameras are allowed and when they’re not allowed in the workplace.

Laws Governing Workplace Surveillance

Workplace surveillance laws vary by state. A couple of federal laws are also relevant in some workplace surveillance situations.

Federal Law

There is no federal law specifically on the use of surveillance cameras in the workplace. However, a couple of federal laws are relevant:

  • Federal wiretap laws prohibit employers from monitoring or recording some employee communications. This may restrict the use of audio recordings in video cameras.
  • Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers from using surveillance cameras to monitor union meetings or other union activities.

State Laws

Without a federal law on workplace video surveillance, states follow different rules.

Several states have laws explicitly addressing video surveillance. For example, California, Connecticut, Delaware, and New York prohibit video or audio surveillance in certain workplace areas, such as restrooms or break areas.

Some states, such as Connecticut, also require employers to notify employees if they are using any cameras in the workplace.

If you are concerned about video surveillance at your job, an employment law attorney can help you understand the specific laws in your state. Another way to get informed is by contacting your state’s labor department about workplace surveillance laws.

Using Audio Recordings in the Workplace

Most states have wiretapping laws prohibiting employers from monitoring or recording certain employee communications.

If your employer uses video cameras that can record audio, they might risk violating your state wiretapping laws or the federal wiretapping laws mentioned above.

However, as employment law attorney Christopher Lenzo says, “Wiretapping laws are only relevant where there is a communication. So, wiretapping laws are applicable if an employer is listening in on employee communications without disclosure,” but not if they are simply tracking location or activity.

States also have different rules on getting consent when recording conservations. Most states have one-party consent. This means you can record a conversation you are part of without getting the other person’s consent.

Other states have two-party or all-party consent. In these states, you must get the permission of everyone else in the conversation to record.

If your employer is in a two-party consent state and tries to record audio without employees’ consent, they may be acting illegally.  

The Legality of Video Surveillance

What if you don’t live in a state with laws addressing workplace surveillance? Even without explicit state laws, courts typically weigh two factors to determine if the use of video surveillance was justified.

Employees’ Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

First, courts will ask if the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Having a reasonable expectation of privacy means that at some times and places, people have the right to be left alone.

There are many places where we expect privacy, such as in our homes. What about in the workplace? Some workplace areas are public, and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Areas like this might include a lobby or front desk.

Other areas of the workplace would be off-limits to surveillance cameras, such as:

  • Restrooms
  • Locker rooms or changing rooms
  • Employee lounges or break rooms

Courts will consider whether an employee reasonably expected privacy when they were monitored. If so, the employee’s privacy was invaded.

Legitimate Business Purpose

The second factor that courts will consider is whether the employer had a legitimate business reason for surveilling employees. Legitimate grounds might be:

  • Ensuring security
  • Monitoring employee productivity
  • Preventing internal theft

Weighing the Factors

Courts will weigh these two factors against each other to determine if a particular instance of surveillance violated an employee’s privacy.

These cases can be very fact-specific. Neither factor is necessarily a knock-down argument. If you pursue legal action, it’s essential to have as much evidence as possible showing that your employer’s surveillance was inappropriate. For example,

  • Does your employer have any policies about surveillance or the use of cameras?
  • Did the employer communicate the policies to employees?
  • Did the employer notify employees about the use of cameras or get permission?
  • Where does your employer keep cameras in the workplace?
  • What activities did the employer monitor or record?
  • What does the employer do with video recordings?
  • Can the cameras take audio recordings?

Other Workplace Surveillance Technologies

Beyond cameras, some employers now use wearable technologies that “measure how many steps employees take or how many bathroom breaks they take–very invasive stuff,” Lenzo says.

Other employee surveillance methods include:

  • Keystroke technologies that track what employees type or search on their computer
  • Biometric technologies such as face imaging for access to buildings or company information

With both established technologies like security cameras and newer, more invasive technologies like biometrics or artificial intelligence, surveillance issues will continue to develop and expand.

Lenzo says these new workplace technologies will continue to challenge us to “strike the balance between human rights, technology, and employer rights.”

Questions for an Attorney

If you have experienced an invasion of privacy in the workplace, you may be wondering what your legal options are. An experienced employment law attorney can give you legal advice on your state’s privacy laws and strategize about the best course of action.

Many attorneys provide free initial consultations to prospective clients. These free consultations allow the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs.

To see whether an attorney is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:

  • What are your attorney fees, and what billing options do you offer?
  • What are the costs of suing for invasion of privacy?
  • What is your experience as an employment lawyer?
  • What are my state’s workplace surveillance laws?
  • What kind of damages could I get in my case?
  • What are the chances of a settlement in my case?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

If you think your employer violated your privacy rights, consider looking for an employment law attorney.

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