Security Laws and Regulations Regarding the Use of Spy Equipment


8 minute read

At SpyGuy, we cannot overstate the importance of being aware about the legality of spy equipment and tracking devices. We firmly believe that our customers should be informed, so keep in mind that should you decide to purchase and use our equipment, there are certain legal regulations to take note of. 

The legal details of using spy equipment are manifold and vary depending on a multitude of factors. So, to make it easier for anyone interested in purchasing spy equipment, we took the liberty of doing the homework for you; all you have to do is sit back and read through our legal guide. By the end of it, you will have all the required knowledge to properly and legally use the SpyGuy equipment.

However, we’d like to point out that consulting a well-informed lawyer is always a good idea, and even though we will provide an overview of laws in certain states, we strongly advise that you check the regulations on security surveillance in your area. After all, you and only you know what you will use a specific piece of spy equipment for and a legal professional will provide you with all the nuances pertaining to your issues.

The spy gear included in this legal guide is separated into the following categories:

  • Audio surveillance equipment
  • Hidden cameras
  • GPS trackers

But before we delve into the details of state laws, we have to clarify the following.

The Supremacy Clause

The Supremacy Clause, as stated in the Constitution of The United States, means that in some cases, federal law shall take precedence over state law.

As pertaining to the matter of this guide; it means that if certain federal laws regarding audio or video surveillance, for example, are stricter than such state laws, the federal law always takes precedence as per the aforementioned clause.

The federal statute that may or may not apply in certain instances regarding the legality of spy equipment is the following: Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). Title 18 of the United States Code, Ch. 119 also may apply in certain situations.

Audio Surveillance Equipment - Security Laws and Regulations 

Depending on the state you’re in, different laws and regulations may apply in regards to audio surveillance. To discern whether it is legal to use voice/audio recorders, we need to take into account the state’s laws and how they interpret consent.

Audio surveillance laws and regulations are based on the notion of consent. As such, they are defined under the concepts of one-party or two-party consent, depending on the state in question. 

The recording of audio is illegal in all states if it is to be obtained for the purpose of committing a criminal act.

One-party consent means that one of the people being recorded is aware of the action happening and have given their permission.

Just as the name implies, one-party consent conveys that, of two or more people involved in the recording, one person consents to be recorded.

Two-party consent means that all the parties involved in the recording action are aware of it happening and have given their permission.

This designates that, while in a required two-party consent state, you are obliged to be granted the other parties’ permission for audio recording. Failing to do so results in legal repercussions. 

Eleven states require two-party consent, i.e. the permission of all parties to the conversation before it can be recorded. They are the following:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington

Noteworthy exceptions to this regulation regarding all-party consent are present in the following states:

  • Washington - “...deems consent to be obtained whenever one party has announced to all other parties to the conversation that it is about to be recorded and the announcement itself is recorded.”
  • California - “...consent requirement applies only to confidential communications and excludes communications in any circumstance in which the parties to the communication may reasonably expect that the communication may be overheard or recorded.”
  • Oregon - “...an in-person, oral communication may not be recorded unless all of the parties are informed of the recording; for electronic communications, a person may record if they either are a party to the communication or one of the parties has consented to the recording.”

All the remaining states, with the exception of Vermont which doesn’t have laws regarding audio surveillance, require one-party consent. The ones who have exceptions to this regulation are the following:

  • Connecticut - One-party for in-person conversations or phone calls recorded by a participant of the conversation
  • Illinois - One-party for private electronic communications only
  • Michigan - One-party only if the recording party is a participant in the conversation
  • Wisconsin - Two-party consent required to be used in court
  • Rhode Island - Consent is not required when the recorded party does not have a reason to expect privacy

Hidden Cameras - Security Laws and Regulations

Contrary to the audio surveillance laws, the laws and regulations regarding the use of hidden cameras, in a vast majority of jurisdictions, are relatively unanimous. They’re mostly based on a single principle - reasonable expectation of privacy, which closely ties into (through interpretation) the Fourth Amendment. Though, certain exceptions are present, depending on the state.

Reasonable expectation of privacy (or REP, as referred to further on), refers to the presumed privacy one might expect to have in places such as bathrooms, dressing rooms, bedrooms, locker rooms, etc. The use of hidden cameras or video recording of any manner without consent is prohibited in the aforementioned places and the like.

The use of hidden cameras is also strictly prohibited in all states if the procurement of video material is done with malicious intent. Malicious intent is defined as “...without just cause or reason, to commit a wrongful act that will result in harm to another. It is the intent to harm or do some evil purpose”.

The states which make an exception to the REP ‘rule’ are the following:

  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Washington

The aforementioned states make it a crime only if the videotaping is for the purpose of sexual gratification.

The following states prohibit only non-consensual video recording of the intimate parts of another person:

  • Alaska
  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Some further noteworthy situations include the following.

When it comes to keeping your home safe and sound, US laws are very straightforward. It’s perfectly legal to use hidden cameras within your home, and it can be done without the consent of the people caught on camera. But it’s important to keep the person’s reasonable expectation of privacy in mind, so rooms such as guest rooms, bathrooms, changing rooms, and so on, are strictly off-limits for such devices.

 

It's generally legal to record hidden cam videos within public areas such as places of business like restaurants, diners, malls, and retail stores, as well as outdoor areas like parks, streets, public squares, quays, etc.

It's illegal to use hidden cameras to record videos in hotel rooms, restrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms, and other areas that have a REP status (as stated above).

Employers generally are not legally obliged to notify their employees of hidden cameras. Regarding big businesses and corporations, company leaders are required to negotiate with trade unions to agree on the legal use of hidden cameras inside the workplace areas.

GPS trackers - Security Laws and Regulations

GPS tracking devices have their own rules and regulations applied to them and are not as straightforward as the audio/video surveillance ones. Though some are clear, others are not so well-defined and differ in different states. This is due in part to the fact that there are no concise federal laws regarding this specific issue. Then again, the state laws are also somewhat limited.

Among the states that actually explicitly prohibit installing a GPS tracking device specifically on someone else’s vehicle without that person’s consent, are:

  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin

Other states that outlaw GPS tracking in a more extensive manner (non-consensually tracking a person, not just their vehicle) are the following:

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia

Though the GPS tracking laws are lacking, many states may apply other privacy-related state or federal laws, such as those regarding harassment, stalking, invasion of privacy, etc. You can find most of the relevant laws that may or may not apply compiled on this list.

The exceptions to the general existing state laws where one may use GPS tracking without consent of the tracked person pertain to: 

  • lawful use by law enforcement (all states), 
  • lawful use by private investigators (Virginia, Texas),
  • use by employer in relation to employee’s work (Virginia, Illinois, Rhode Island), 
  • use by a parent or guardian on an underage individual’s vehicle (New Hampshire, Michigan, Delaware, Tennessee, North Carolina), 
  • use by fleet owners/motor carriers/car manufacturers (Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin).

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