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The Legal and Ethical Issues of Using a Nanny Cam

Installing a camera to watch babysitters and nannies in the home is a right, but it carries its own responsibilities.

Nanny cams — and hidden nanny cams in particular — come with a weird tangle of ethical and legal responsibilities. That’s true even as cameras proliferate in the world on everything from phones and tablets to doorbells that can be accessed by the cops and maybe even the crooks. But that’s why understanding the legal responsibilities of installing hidden nanny cams, is incredibly important. Cameras may be ubiquitous, but the law is the law — and the law is different from state to state.

“Each state has laws regarding whether it is legal to record someone without their consent,” explains Thomas Simeone, an attorney and an adjunct law professor in Washington, D.C. “Anyone installing a nanny cam should definitely determine the law of the state in which they live before doing so. Violating the statute can open a parent up to severe penalties.”

How to Legally Use a Nanny Cam

  • Know the Law – What can be recorded and where is different in each state, so parents who want to install a nanny cam should consider consulting a lawyer.
  • Secret or Not? – Some states require notice that there is a camera recording, and some don’t, but it may greatly simplify things if homeowners decide to just be open about it.
  • People Still Deserve Privacy – Even if it is legally acceptable to mount a camera (which again, varies by state), there are rooms where people expect and deserve privacy. Respect that.
  • Keep the Recordings? – As long as the recordings themselves are not illegal, parents can keep them indefinitely. But if there’s no good reason for keeping them, don’t.

So, a homeowner can install a camera, sure, but some states limit where they can be installed (usually not in a place with an expectation of privacy, like a washroom or private bedroom). Some states require that some sort of notice should be given when a camera is recording. Some states require neither, although installing a camera in a bathroom is gross in any state. Just gross as heck.

The impulse to be able to monitor what a nanny or sitter does is understandable. But nanny cams can’t really distinguish who they should and shouldn’t record, Simeone points out.

“Nanny cams can sometimes be positioned such that they record others beside the nanny, such as guests of the nannies, playmates of the children, delivery people, repair technicians, and guests of the parents,” he explains. “These people also may have rights not to be recorded without their consent.”

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Even in states where they don’t have such rights, parents should consider the ethical implications of recording everyone in their living room. It can make a lot of playdates awkward — parents who find out may not like the idea of their child being recorded secretly. After all, they don’t know who has seen the video, or how long they’ll be kept. And according to Simeone, a homeowner could keep them indefinitely.

“If the video is legally proper, it can be kept as long as the owner wishes,” Simeone says. “However, an owner should be mindful that as long as the video is kept, it is subject to subpoena or discovery in any court case, including personal injury claims and divorce cases. Accordingly, once a potential case or claim arises, an owner should retain the video because to delete it may constitute destruction of evidence, which can have severe penalties. However, if there is no pending claim, the owner is likely free to delete the video as soon as they wish.”

Note that Simeone specifies that the owner can keep the video as long as they wish provided it “is legally proper,” which highlights another complication of using a nanny cam: recording a babysitter can be very complicated if the sitter is a minor. Not only can minors not consent, but capturing them in compromising situations, such as in the bathroom, changing, or with a boyfriend or girlfriend, can create legal problems all their own.

“If the babysitter or nanny is under the legal age in the state, and if the video records them undressed and/or being intimate with someone else (who may also be under the legal age), the video may be considered child pornography,” cautions Simeone.

That’s a pretty horrifying unintended consequence of installing a nanny cam. The babysitter hooking up with a BF after the kids are in bed may be exactly the sort of behavior parents don’t want to occur in their home, but actually capturing it on a camera opens up a bigger problem. Perhaps the best course — legally and ethically — is to inform all the parties that certain rooms are being recorded. But in any case, parents installing nanny cams should speak to a law professional.