Nowadays it seems like people have become more and more accustomed to being recorded. Whether it is taking a walk down a public street, or in a store, most people understand and accept, or give no thought at all, that someone somewhere is watching. At times it may make people feel safe, other times it may feel overly intrusive, and in recent years the Massachusetts legislature and state courts have grappled with this topic, how much video recording or surveillance is too much?

The Massachusetts Privacy Act, MGL c. 214, sec. 1B provides that individuals have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his or her privacy, and the widespread use of cell phones has spurred another look at the legality of video surveillance.  In general, a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy within their residence, but individuals living in condominium units can only assert their privacy rights within their units and not in common areas within the condominium building, such as in the hallways.

This has become a rising problem for condominium unit owners, specifically with the increased popularity and use of other recording devices that by now most people are familiar with, doorbell ring cameras. They’re relatively inexpensive, easy to install, and let people screen visitors, keep an eye on mail and package deliveries, and allow homeowners to check who’s at the door. However, installing them in a condo building can raise privacy concerns for neighbors and other residents.

It is not just installing them inside of condo buildings that is the issue, if a unit owner is considering installing a camera to monitor other exclusive or common area spaces, such as yards, decks, porches, or patios, it is likely to be a violation of the condominium’s bylaws or rules and regulations. In most condominiums, owners are not allowed to make exterior changes to their unit, yard, decks, porches, or patios, which are considered to be limited common areas subject to the rules and regulations adopted by the condominium board. A unit owner is unlikely to have the right, pursuant to the condominium documents, to install a camera that is located in the common area without support from the trustees.  However, a unit owner is entitled to install a security camera within his or her own unit, so long as the camera only records video and not audio. Mass. Gen. Laws c. 272, sec. 99 prohibits secretly video recording and capturing sound and audio.

So, if your board is considering installing cameras, or if a unit owner is seeking permission for the installation for privacy reasons, it is important to keep the following in mind. If a camera is allowed to be installed on the outside of the unit, be sure to angle the camera so it is only recording your space and unit. This will limit privacy concerns of neighbors and other unit owners, as the camera is only capturing your comings and goings. This may mean that ring cameras that face out toward the street or across the hall may be overly intrusive as they peer into your neighbor’s unit when they are entering or exiting. The fact that a camera captures your comings and goings is likely not enough to elevate into a breach of privacy.  Living in a condominium can at times mean a lesser expectation of privacy in areas that are in joint control of the unit owners and/or are publicly accessible, still, a doorbell camera in the front door of an apartment-style condominium is often aimed at the entrance to the unit directly across the hall and those neighbors may feel as if they’re under surveillance. If the camera is in the front door of a town house style condo, just focused on a walkway or pourch to the town house only, you’re not invading other people’s space, so long as the intent is clear, that you are only using the camera to understand what’s happening in front of your space and your space alone.

Another important thing to keep in mind if your board is considering installing cameras, or if a unit owner is seeking permission for the installation of a camera, is to keep audio recognition off any security camera recording. If a condominium board is going to grant permission to an owner to install a camera, the board should do so with the use of a license or use agreement. In this agreement the board can set the terms for the camera’s use, and the board may choose to include terms for limiting invasion of privacy, anti-harassment, and/or restrict audio. Should a unit owner fail to abide by these terms, the association may then revoke that owner’s ability to use the camera. Associations may choose to reserve the right to check and recheck audio preferences on the camera to ensure audio is not being captured. It is crucial to have a very clear process and association should be thoughtful, practical, and proactive about crafting rules and enforcement regulating the use of private security cameras, especially as more people install them.

At the end of the day, condo associations want their residents to be comfortable and unit owners want to feel secure in their space. If security cameras are allowed in your condominium’s condo documents, or you would like to open up a conversation about allowing security cameras, just be mindful about your neighbors and other residents privacy concerns. The best way to feel secure and respect other privacy is to abide by the privacy act and general laws by making sure, only your space is being surveyed and no audio is being recorded.

If you have any questions about condominium security cameras, privacy, or installation please contact an attorney at Allcock & Marcus.

Written by

David Lally

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