Video Cameras in Condos: Privacy, Safety and More
By: Phillip Livingston
Date Published: November 11, 2020
Surveillance cameras keep an eye on busy condo buildings, and when installed correctly, can be useful security tools. However, not all residents are so welcoming of cameras. Privacy concerns must be balanced with security solutions.
In most cases, it is legal for a condominium association to install surveillance cameras anywhere on common property – except in areas where residents would have a reasonable expectation of privacy (for example, locker rooms). What is reasonable can be tricky to define. Privacy rights are defined on a state by state basis. Canadians do not have an intrinsic “right” to privacy either, but there are several laws that relate to privacy. When in doubt, the board should always consult an attorney about what is and is not permissible before installing surveillance cameras in their building.
Installing cameras in your condo
Before moving forward, it’s crucial to understand that residents have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they are in their homes, meaning cameras should never monitor someone’s private space. The viewing range of a security camera should never capture the inside of any unit.
There is not the same expectation of privacy in shared spaces such as the lobby, elevators, stairwells, and hallways. Condos generally have the right to place security cameras in these spaces without consent from residents. How is this possible? For many associations, the installation of security cameras would constitute as an addition, alteration or improvement to the common elements – and that may require the board to send a formal notice to the owners. It would also require the board to tell owners that they are entitled to requisition an owner’s meeting to vote on the security addition.
But, the board may carry out an addition or alteration in specific circumstances if necessary for the safety or security of the people who live and work in the condo. Therefore, even if owners disagree with this decision, the board’s opinion that the cameras are necessary for security would likely be enough of a reason to install the cameras without providing notice to the unit owners.
Many condominiums struggle with whether they should install cameras that will watch over pools or fitness areas. These spaces are considered common elements, and there is a reasonable understanding that these areas are not private. However, some board members feel that these areas should not be under surveillance. It is up to the board to make this call, but having an integrated approach to condo security may resolve the need to have cameras in these areas, without leaving them vulnerable.
Security cameras should not be recording activities that occur outside of the condo’s “property line.” Special care must be taken so that they do not accidentally capture footage of adjacent properties or homes.
Though cameras can help detour and resolve crimes, associations must carefully consider what purpose the cameras will serve. This care must be taken to minimize privacy intrusions as much as possible, and minimize the chances of any unit owner or resident challenging the association’s right to install and use the cameras.
Even though it may not be mandatory, as a best practice, the board should notify residents in writing about the common element areas that are, or will be, under video surveillance. Signs should also be installed in the common areas that are being surveilled so that everyone knows the cameras are present. The goal of cameras isn’t to catch someone doing something wrong; they are meant to dissuade people from misbehaving. Therefore, visible signs help ensure that people know they are being watched.
Creating a policy
A privacy and video surveillance policy sets out the rationale and purpose of the surveillance cameras, and provides a set of guidelines and procedures for the association to follow. The board should create a detailed policy that includes guidelines for access to, and retention of the video footage. Below are the key areas that your video surveillance policy needs to address:
- The purpose and location of each camera installed in the condo building
- Under what circumstances video footage will be reviewed, and who is authorized to view it
- What happens if a resident asks to review footage
- How the video will be archived, and how long footage will be kept before it is deleted
- How residents will be notified of changes or expansions to the existing security camera system
Once a policy is in place, boards must make a concerted effort to maintain the equipment properly, and abide by the rules and regulations. Residents trust that the camera system is providing security services, and these expectations must be met.
All camera footage should be stored in a secure location, with limited access, and should be destroyed when no longer required. The footage should only be reviewed by authorized personnel, and this should only happen if an incident has occurred.
The industry standard is to destroy recordings after 30 days, but boards should consider any state statutes governing limitations on liability. The negligence standard is what a reasonable person would do under foreseeable risks in light of the circumstances. So, in a larger condo building with lots of people and public access, the chances of needing a recording after 30 days are much higher. These larger associations may want to look at backing up footage.
Who has access?
The condo’s management company, the board and law enforcement officials should have access to surveillance footage. The finer details regarding access will be laid out in the association’s privacy and video surveillance policy. Residents should not have open access to security recordings. However, they can be granted access under certain circumstances, if the footage applies explicitly to them.
Can the condo install hidden cameras?
Condos can technically install surveillance cameras in common areas without notifying residents. But what about installing hidden cameras? Can associations do this if they need to “catch someone in the act?” The simple answer is no. If there is no visible camera, and residents haven’t been told about the security cameras, the people who live in the building are entitled to expect that they are not being recorded.
Do not record audio
There’s a reason why most surveillance footage does not have audio. Recording sounds and conversations may be considered a criminal offence, and should never be captured without legal consent. Board members who record communications, or share any recorded audio communications with others, are subject to potential liability and claims for damages from anyone recorded without first giving their consent.
Surveillance cameras can be an excellent security tool for condo communities. They are more affordable than other security solutions, but are more effective when used in combination with other security measures.
Cameras can be a tricky issue due to their potential to infringe upon the privacy rights of residents and others who frequent the property. As such, it is generally advised that boards consult with a legal professional before installing cameras on the common elements.