Security Cameras vs. Right of Privacy

I own a unit and live in a medium sized condominium in the Boston area.  Recently, a few strangers have been found lurking the hallways of the building.  One of my neighbors who lives across the hall from me is very nervous about the possibility of a break-in and wants to install a security camera inside his unit, facing the hall.  The camera would capture the space between my door and the elevator down the hall, and it would be impossible for me to leave my unit without crossing through the frame of this security camera.  The Management Company tells me my neighbor has complete control over the camera’s footage.  I believe it is a violation of my privacy rights because it would show all information of my family’s whereabouts and activity.  Do I have any privacy rights over this door camera?

Answer:

You are smart to evaluate your legal rights in light of your neighbor’s installation of a security camera.  The Massachusetts Privacy Act, MGL c. 214, sec. 1B provides that individuals have a “right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy” and the widespread use of camera 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 the hallways. 

Condominium unit owners are subject to MGL c. 183A, and the condominium’s governing documents (Master Deed, Declaration of Trust, Rules and Regulations).  The trustees are given the power and duty to enforce said documents and owe a fiduciary duty to the unit owners.  The trustees are also charged with maintaining the common areas.  In this case, due to the presence of intruders in common areas on the property, it is reasonable that the trustees would want to take measures to protect the unit owners from clearly foreseeable criminal activity, including the installation of security cameras, and monitor when individuals enter and exit the building.

The law is murky when it comes to another unit owner making the unilateral decision to install a security camera that records activity in the common area, and is the only unit owner with access to the same.  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, the unit owner is entitled to install a security camera within his unit as long as the camera only records video and not audio.   Mass. Gen. Laws c. 272, § 99 prohibits secret video recording when sound is captured.

The fact that the camera captures your comings and goings is likely not enough to elevate into a breach of your right to privacy.  Living in a condominium means you should have less expectations of privacy in areas that are in joint control of the unit owners and/or are publicly accessible, such as you’re in the hallway, than in the rest of your home. The security camera captures you walking in a hallway and does not record your front door or have a chance of capturing inside your unit where you have a reasonable expectation to a right to privacy.  The unit owner appears to be taking reasonable steps to monitor the hallways and prevent strangers from lurking there.  So long as the condominium documents do not have an express provision restricting the installation of security cameras, the unit owner is likely within his purview to do so.

If you feel that your neighbor has installed the camera solely to harass you or your family, or is improperly using the images captured on the video, you could request that the trustees formally demand that the unit owner take down the security camera.  The trustees could also choose to levy fines against your neighbor for improper use of the condominium common areas and/or harassing another unit owner.  If the cease and desist  letter does not provide the relief you seek,  you could file a lawsuit against the unit owner,  under the Massachusetts Privacy Act,  seeking equitable relief to prohibit harassment through excessive video surveillance within your unit.  A Court could also award money damages if it determines that a serious or substantial invasion of privacy occurred.   Consult your lawyer to determine whether the condominium documents contain provisions that your neighbor has violated in his installation of the security camera or whether your reasonable expectation of privacy has been severely violated.