Are Security Cameras an Invasion of Privacy?

Only a few decades ago people would feel seriously uncomfortable being monitored by security cameras.

Ernst Junger, a somewhat controversial but nevertheless excellent German writer in his essay On Pain called the camera a “technological evil eye”. According to Junger, it’s a device that captures reality completely objectively. The image has no subjectivity about it, it cannot judge a situation like a human does, making it a somewhat cruel device.

When it comes to privacy however, most people are not worried about the camera itself, but the person behind it. The one who is perhaps monitoring them in real life, or will use the recorded footage to blackmail them or for whatever other purpose.

The unease stems from the fact that they are being watched by an invisible entity who might have a hidden agenda that goes against their personal safety.

Security vs. Privacy Debate

Despite of the feeling of unease in regards to security cameras, most people are not entirely against their use. It’s more a debate on finding the right balance between security and privacy.

Some people lean more towards security, while others are more in favor of personal privacy. A common point that is brought up by pro-security advocates is that:

  • If you didn’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

This is followed by the standard counterargument:

  • The definition of what is right and wrong might change in the future. Advanced surveillance can be misused at some point in the future at the detriment of all citizens.

While pro-security advocates tend to scoff at this remark, considering it to be a mild argumentum ad absurdum, we can find a similar concern in Plato’s Republic.

In Republic, Socrates is in favor of a strictly hierarchical society, in which “everything is in it’s right place”. On top of the hierarchy stand the Guardians, the protectors of the Republic. These men would be the only ones who are allowed to carry weapons and be trained to wield them.

The question that is raised in this scenario and ones that could become reality in not too distant future is: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who will watch the watchers?”, as remarked by the famous Roman poet Juvenal in his Satires. Many concerned citizens are asking the same question about the increased use of security cameras.

To be honest, CCTV systems are still not powerful enough to control the entire society without also having serious manpower behind them. Hundred percent accurate face recognition is still hard to achieve especially in a dark environment, making dystopian claims from pro-privacy advocates somewhat exaggerated.

But it’s only a matter of time before we have fully automatic facial recognition which will allow these CCTV systems to act on their own accord. In combination with the overall AI development, we could be facing a fully automated control of society, as police and military are run by AI and any dissidents are destroyed with the cold precision that Ernst Junger considered to be the terrifying feature of much of modern technology.

The Security Pros of Security Cameras

Despite of potential dangers to privacy, we cannot ignore the immense security benefits of surveillance systems. Security cameras are an excellent deterrent against criminals. They can be used to better secure homes, stores, workplaces and any institution you can think of.

Many modern security cameras are equipped with motions sensors and have WiFi connectivity. It allows them to send alerts to the owner or the authorities in case movement is detected in the monitored area. This is an excellent feature for securing vacant properties and those areas where no movement is expected unless a criminal is trying to break in or has done so already.

Furthermore, cameras are often equipped with infrared or thermal vision, which allows for easy detection of intruders during nighttime. Sometimes the image quality is so advanced that facial recognition is quite easy even in pitch black environments.

The Privacy Issues Concerning Security Cameras

Unfortunately, security cameras can’t monitor selectively. Anyone that steps into the monitored area will be caught on camera and will be observed until they leave. If the recorded footage is saved, it could be used against anyone if the occasion arises.

Two random scenarios that shows to what extent this can go: A cheating husband walking down the street with his lover could be blackmailed by the surveillance team. A surveillance camera could also record an innocent passer by walking down the street at the same time that a crime occurred in a nearby location. The passer-by might have nothing to do with the event, but he could become a major suspect simply because he was the only one caught on camera at the time.

On top of these truly serious scenarios, employers could mistreat their employees by placing security cameras in the workplace. No one appreciates being monitored by their boss while they’re at work. And while it’s understandable that surveillance is used to monitor entrance points to jewelry shops and banks, a camera that is monitoring the employees every move can be quite disconcerting.

In most places, employers don’t have the legal obligation to make the presence of a security camera known to their employees. One example is a general office area, another is the general area in a retail store. But if the camera is placed in a fairly private setting, for instance in a company bathroom, it would be considered a serious breach of personal privacy.

How to use security cameras legally?

Security cameras are in many regards a grey area when it comes to legal use. But two things are certain at least in the United States:

  • You can use a security camera monitor your own private property
  • You can use a security camera to monitor a public area
  • You are not allowed to monitor someone else’s private property (for example your neighbor’s house or backyard)

The grey areas are concerned mostly with monitoring in your own private property. For example, recording a love making session without the other person knowing about it, even if it’s happening on your own property.

Monitoring a toilet area would also constitute a privacy breach if the person being recorded is a minor or someone who is simply not aware that they’re being recorded.

In order to avoid dealing with these legal grey areas, install security cameras in locations where it’s perfectly legal and will actually help you prevent criminal activity:

  • entrance points (doors, windows, gates)
  • general areas (living room, office space, retail store, cash register, vault/safe)
  • backyard
  • vehicle (for recording road accidents and preventing break-ins)
  • malls
  • restaurants
  • night clubs
  • waiting rooms

Use the recorded footage carefully

It’s of paramount importance to use the data you’ve acquired carefully. If you filmed your staff in the office and decided to blackmail them with the footage, this would obviously not go well in court.

If you decide to make the recordings public (by uploading them or streaming in real life to an online audience for example) without their consent, this can also be considered as a privacy breach deserving of a law suit.

If you want to be super careful in dealing with surveillance footage, use it only when the security of your home or business has been breached, not to stalk people for entertainment or a more malicious purpose.

Final Word: Are Security Cameras an Invasion of Privacy?

There are obviously many legal grey areas concerning surveillance technology. If you follow the general advice shared in this article, you’ll avoid many pitfalls that home and business owners fall into by carelessly installing security cameras.

The general guideline is to use them only where it’s actually helpful for SECURITY purposes. If you plan on stalking people or controlling your employees from afar to increase their productivity, surveillance can quickly spiral out of control.

When security is your one and only concern, privacy issues can be minimized to a point where people with common sense will not feel threatened by the cameras.

Sure, there will always be those who feel irritated when they’re observed by the “technological evil eye”, but there’s never a good reason to make more enemies than you have to.

Having said that, laws can vary drastically from one place to the next. If you need more specific advice, contact a good lawyer to provide you with the most recent legal updates for your place of residence.

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