Security cameras were a popular 2023 Christmas present, and in the days after Santa’s visit, families and business owners were busy at work setting them up — which led to several phone calls from their concerned neighbors, everyone asking some variation of the same question: “Can I do anything about my neighbor’s security camera being pointed directly at (fill in the blank),” including:
- Our front office
- A room where I keep our pets
- My bedroom
- Our bathroom
- A room used by employees to change their clothes
Everyone felt that a camera aimed at their property was an invasion of privacy, but is it legal? Is there some way to prevent this intrusion? Can the camera be blocked from seeing inside? How should they deal with the matter?
However, no one asked the key, threshold question: Have security cameras had a major impact on the reduction of crime? Are they worth having?
First, I can tell you from personal experience that having security cameras can have no effect at all on solving or preventing certain crimes. My law office was broken into at 3 a.m. December 3, 2023. The burglars broke open two French doors, stole a 32-inch LED TV, leaving behind the power cord and remote control, and ransacked a few desk drawers. We have cameras all over the place and bright night-lights (at least the burglars were able to see so they wouldn’t trip and hurt themselves!). We saw what they did on our cellphones — but that’s it. In this case, the cameras were not helpful.
To get an expert’s take, I turned to Marvin Fuller, CEO of Southern California-based M&S Security Services. His company provides security systems for both commercial and residential applications, as well as guard services.
“There are two competing views,” Fuller acknowledged, adding, “But many of the negative studies go back years, before we had the sophisticated equipment available today.”
He noted that the state-of-the-art video and AI tools are far more effective than anything that has been available in the past and repeated an often asked question: “We can watch the break-in on video or after it happened, but can I do something in real time to scare away the burglars?
“Today, commercially, helped by AI, we monitor cameras for human and vehicle detection; send those analytics to a central station, where they are viewed and guards can be dispatched in less than a minute; and — what often stops the entire crime — we can actually talk to the perpetrators! ‘We see you there! You with the red beanie — you taking the catalytic converter off the car — if you do not leave immediately, law enforcement or a security officer will be dispatched.’”
He cited Ring doorbell cameras and similar devices as being highly effective, some of which allow the property owner to yell, “Get off of my property!” when they spot someone trespassing. “But they typically lack the video quality to capture license plate information, and this is where private security companies are light-years ahead of the consumer market with higher-quality cameras and license plate readers.”
Expectation of privacy: Key to where the cameras may be pointed
A reader from Eureka, Calif., complained of her neighbor’s camera appearing to be aimed at a room in her home where she keeps her cats. “On the rare sunny day, I open the blinds to let sunshine in,” she said. “I do not like this one bit!”
Fuller’s response? “If you are on the street, or anywhere someone can see you or your home from the street or their yard, there can be no expectation of privacy, and there is nothing you can do about it. If a neighbor’s camera appears to be pointed at a particular room in your house, it might be that it has to be placed that way to see a broad area in their yard.”
He added, “But if you go onto someone’s property, cut a hole in a fence to film or hide a camera inside a house or changing room where there is an expectation of privacy, that could easily violate the law.”
May I legally block the view of a security camera?
There are many ways a business or homeowner may legally block a view into their property. Fuller suggested:
- Privacy film placed on windows can create a frosted-glass appearance during the day so that no real detail can be captured. Others act as a mirror, and still others function best at nighttime.
- Physical barriers, such as window blinds and curtains, make it impossible to look inside. Also, shrubs and trees function as barriers, provided they are high enough to block the view of the cameras.
Don’t get yourself sued or arrested
Fuller stressed, “Damaging your neighbor’s security camera, unless you have solid proof that it is invading your privacy, invites legal problems. Do not believe what you read online about shining a laser into the camera’s lens to destroy it! Chances are, it won’t work, and if it does, that’s vandalism.”
My recommendation: There’s a ton of online advice recommending that you express your concerns to your neighbor. I disagree, as your tone could easily sound accusatory. Instead, say to them, “I’m considering getting a camera system like yours. Will you show me how yours works and what it sees? That would really help me.”
That way, you are asking for help and validating the all-important “let’s watch out for each other” security behavior among neighbors. And you’ll get an answer about whether those cameras are invading your privacy.
Now, that would indeed be a real win-win.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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