Modern Home Surveillance Systems Offer Peace of Mind, but Not Without Potential Legal Issues

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Doorbell cameras and wireless home security systems are becoming increasingly affordable and user-friendly ways for families to protect their homes, acting as eyes and ears while homeowners are away.

“I’ve caught people stealing my solar yard lights three times,” homeowner Stephanie Duncan said. “I caught people shining lights into the cars parked on the street to break into them.”

Those who have them say cameras from Ring or Nest have been useful upgrades to their home.

“We would just find our stuff missing and we didn’t know what happened, but now we have proof and it’s been really helpful,” Duncan said.

Duncan has a number of home security cameras around her Sacramento house. There is one in the window, operating 24/7, and even a couple sensor-programmed devices up in the trees, keeping a close watch on anyone who approaches her property.

“Everyone should have some sort of surveillance, especially if you’re having problems with package theft, car break-ins,” she said. “The more information that we have, the better.”

These devices are popping up in neighborhoods across the country, so the next time you’re near someone’s property, expect to be on camera.

Sacramento County Sheriff’s Detective James Hart says these tools have helped his department catch people breaking into cars, vandalizing neighborhoods and, of course, package thieves.

“So this is one of the cases we recently worked where a citizen had uploaded a video of a package theft to the Ring Neighborhood, and in viewing the video, we were able to identify the suspect and his vehicle,” Hart said.

While this technology may help police solve crimes, could it also result in homeowners facing charges?

Attorney Tony Francois says that all depends on what you do with the camera.

“You can, for example, set up a security camera to protect yourself from package theft and that camera may, in the background, be picking up your neighbor’s homes,” Francois said.

He advises homeowners to only point the camera at their own property, but says the audio is where homeowners can actually get into trouble.

In California, it’s illegal to record a conversation without permission.

“Audio is different and in California, both sides of a conversation, both parties to it need to consent to that conversation being recorded,” Francois said. “And for that purpose, it’s pretty wise to make sure that somebody knows that they're being recorded. So, if you've got a doorbell cam with the audio always on or triggered by motion and then the audio turns on, you should have a sign there that says, 'You are subject to audio recording while you're here.'"

There’s also the potential for hacking, with doorbell cameras linked to a home wi-fi network.

University of the Pacific Professor John Sims says when people use these home security tools, they’re actually giving up a piece of their own privacy.

“Even if you’re putting that camera on your front porch to protect yourself, you’re the person whose activities are going to be recorded most persistently and most meticulously,” Sims said.

But many homeowners like Duncan are willing to run the privacy risk in exchange for their own protection.

“My perspective is I've got nothing to hide. It’s the way of doing the modern-day neighborhood watch,” she said. “Not everyone is home looking out their windows all the time to see suspicious activity, but the cameras are always on.”

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