Security cameras can be a major benefit to a landlord. However, tenants may be more ambivalent about their presence. While they obviously make the building more secure, they can also be seen as an invasion of privacy. The law agrees on some occasions. Surveillance of private property by someone who is not the owner is illegal. Similarly, spying on your tenants in their apartments is also prohibited. Cameras are only legal if they are being used to monitor public areas.
However, before we get to where cameras can and cannot go, there is something even more pressing, and that is audio. The law sees eavesdropping on unwilling parties as more of an invasion of privacy than monitoring them with a camera. And while there are a limited number of conditions that allow for audio surveillance, it’s best to avoid the issue entirely unless it becomes an absolute necessity. If you do believe you need to have audio surveillance, consult an attorney. Do not install any equipment that can record audio unless they approve of its usage. As the LandlordsNY Legal Expert Michelle Maratto Itkowitz wrote in response to a question posted on the site some time ago, “Audio surveillance is governed by the Federal Wiretap Act, which prohibits intentionally intercepting ‘any wire, oral or electronic communication.’ See, 18 U.S.C. §2511.” She adds that, “§ 250.05 of the New York Penal Law, captioned ‘Eavesdropping,’ renders it a class E felony for any person, other than a law enforcement officer…to engage in, among other forms of surveillance, ‘mechanical overhearing of a conversation.’” Mechanical overhearing is defined in N.Y. Penal Law § 250.00 as “the intentional overhearing or recording of a conversation or discussion, without the consent of at least one party thereto, by a person not present thereat, by means of any instrument, device or equipment.”
To reiterate: Having a security camera equipped with audio is not 100 percent illegal, but it is only rarely deemed warranted in the eyes of the law. Unless your attorney has approved it, do not put a security camera with a microphone in your building.
Back to the thorny issue of camera placement. We can split this into two categories: indoor cameras and outdoor cameras.
For outdoor cameras, the rule is straightforward. You have the right to watch over public areas such as sidewalks and streets. You can also install cameras that monitor the outdoor portions of your property. However, the Backyard Surveillance Bill, which was signed into law by Governor Cuomo this past summer, prohibits you from pointing cameras into your neighbors’ backyards. If a neighbor feels pestered, threatened, or uneasy about the camera, you are required to take it down or reposition it. If you refuse, the displeased neighbor can ask for an injunction from the court. Note that this is a civil matter, so it's not like you'll go to jail, but it still could cost you. The law says nothing about front yards.
As for interior cameras, the logic behind the law is pretty much the same: Don't invade someone else's space. You can't angle cameras so that they'll see into the private lives of your tenants. The best way to think about it is a kind of crass question. Here it is: Is it reasonable to assume that this camera will see naked people? If the answer is yes, don’t put the camera there. If the answer is no, you’re probably okay. This means that cameras are not prohibited in the lobby, vestibule, mail rooms, public hallways, amenity areas (gyms, pools, dog spas, etc.), or elevators, and that they are prohibited in bedrooms, bathrooms, changing rooms, and the like.
This brings up perhaps the thorniest issue concerning security cameras: Surveillance of a particular apartment.
Let’s say, for example, that you suspect there are tenants who are renting out their apartment on Airbnb, and you want to go about collecting evidence before you bring the issue up. For this evidence to be admissible in court, you need to ensure that the surveillance does not violate the tenants’ privacy. In this case, it would mean by capturing any image of the interior of the apartment. You only want to document who comes and who goes. The specifics of what happens inside the unit is irrelevant and entirely none of your business. You also need to have the footage “authenticated.” Consequently, it is highly recommended that you hire a professional investigator to set up the camera so that it does not violate tenants’ rights and so that it can be properly authenticated and, therefore, admissible in court.
To summarize, here are the hard and fast rules of security cameras: No audio, no neighbors' backyards, no potentially naked people, and no doing it yourself when it comes to monitoring specific tenants.