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What Is Considered Illegal Surveillance?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Illegal surveillance is the monitoring of a person's activities or property in a manner that breaks regional laws. What constitutes legal versus illegal surveillance may be very different depending on the region and whether the spying is being done by a private citizen or law enforcement group. Depending on the region, wiretapping, recording a conversation without consent, following a target, or postal interception may be deemed illegal surveillance.

Surveillance is often crucial to law enforcement investigations; it is also frequently helpful in the work of private detectives. Government agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States, use surveillance techniques to hunt for possible terrorist activity and to track down federal criminals. Where surveillance crosses the line into a violation of rights to privacy, however, is a gray area of frequent controversy. Between private citizens, the rules of illegal surveillance are often far more delineated than between citizens and government investigators.

In some regions, it is illegal to monitor or record any type of conversation without consent of the participants. In some areas, like the state of Colorado, only one participant need agree to the taping, which allows the use of evidence-gathering techniques such as having a consenting participant talk to the surveillance target while wearing a recording device. In California, on the other hand, it is illegal to record any conversation without the consent of all parties. In states or regions where this type of monitoring is considered illegal surveillance, any recorded information is usually inadmissible as evidence or to build a case.

Sometimes, the legality of surveillance may depend on the location of the surveillance devices. For instance, it is legal in many places to have security video cameras in stores, around check-out counters, and in parking lots. These devices are usually allowed because these are public locations where people have less claim to the right of privacy; since they are in public, they usually can't legally claim that their actions were meant to be private. A security camera in a restroom stall, on the other hand, is likely to be an instance of illegal surveillance, since a restroom stall is usually considered a place where a person can reasonably expect privacy.

Surveillance via the Internet is a growing problem in the 21st century and one of the major contributing factors to identity theft. Hackers and thieves often seek to gain personal information about an Internet user by using unsecured Internet connections or hacking password-protected accounts. With this information, a person's whereabouts, activities, private communications, and bank account or credit card information. This type of activity, particularly the interception of email or private communication, is usually considered illegal surveillance unless it is done by authorized law enforcement personnel as part of an ongoing investigation.

How To Report Illegal Surveillance?

If you believe you are being illegally surveilled by a private citizen, you can report the activity to your local police department. If you think you are being illegally surveilled by a government agency, you can report the activity to a watchdog agency, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. You may also want to speak to an attorney.

Can My Neighbor Record Me on My Property?

The answer to this question depends on the laws in your state. In some states, video recording is legal, as long as the camera is located on your neighbor's property. In other states, it may be subject to civil or criminal penalties. In most places, it is legal to record in areas that can be viewed by the public, such as backyards.

If you are concerned about being recorded on your property, you may want to speak to a local attorney to find out what the laws in your state are. If it is not illegal to record, you can try to prevent unwanted observation by erecting a privacy fence or planting hedges or trees.

What Are the Laws on Outdoor Surveillance Cameras for Home?

The laws about residential security cameras are different in different states. In most cases, it is legal to install a security camera to record video of the area around your home, including the street. Recording of areas that are visible to the public is generally legal. However, a camera that is pointed at a neighbor's window and records images from inside the home could be illegal because people have a right to privacy inside their homes that they do not have in public areas.

What Is the Difference Between Stalking, Spying and Surveilling?

The term spy can refer to anyone who observes another person without that person knowing. Stalkers spy on a person, usually for emotional or psychological reasons, repeatedly. Some stalkers may also harass or intimidate the people they spy on. Surveillance is careful observation of a suspicious person.

What Is Computer Surveillance?

Most computer surveillance is done on the internet. The Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act requires all broadband internet traffic and phone calls in the United States to be available for real-time monitoring by federal law enforcement. Because the amount of data on the internet is vast, surveillance is often conducted by using computers to flag suspicious activity that is later reviewed by investigators.

Computers are often a target for surveillance by both law enforcement and criminals because of the amount of personal data stored on them. Government agencies have access to emails, search history, live chats, stored information, file transfers and other types of data.

What Is Telephone Surveillance?

Telephone surveillance is often referred to as wiretapping. All telephone traffic in the United States is required to be made accessible to Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Additionally, major communication companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, have agreements with the FBI to maintain easily searchable records of phone calls.

Agencies use speech-to-text software to monitor calls and create text from the intercepted audio. This text is then interpreted by automated analysis programs and any suspicious activity is flagged for a human agent to investigate. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement in the United States and the United Kingdom have technology that makes it possible to remotely access the microphones in cell phones. They can also utilize other features of the phones to listen to conversations that occur near the person who possesses the phone. Mobile phones can be used to obtain location data.

What Is Camera Surveillance?

Security or surveillance cameras are used for monitoring activity in the area around the camera. These devices are usually connected to a recording device and may also be monitored in real-time on a closed-circuit TV, smartphone, computer or another device. Surveillance cameras have long been used by business owners to monitor their property for safety concerns, shoplifting and other criminal activity. However, in recent years surveillance cameras have gained popularity for home use. Local and Federal law enforcement also utilize networks of security cameras.

Newer technologies, such as facial recognition software, are increasingly being used to search through crowds of people to locate criminals or terrorists. Some cities have used networks of cameras initially installed for traffic monitoring for police surveillance.

What Is Social Network Surveillance?

Social networks have become another source of data for government surveillance. Intelligence agencies have been researching the use of social network surveillance to combat threats from decentralized, geographically dispersed groups of extremists, terrorists and subversives.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006220 — On Feb 14, 2022

I was stalked, harassed and assaulted by my neighbor. She also threatened me with a bat, a gun and her fists. She assaulted and stabbed me and vandalized my vehicle. For some reason, the police believed her and called me a liar, even when I had witnesses, visible damage to my vehicle and an obvious stab wound. They refused to arrest her and blocked me from getting a restraining order twice. They refused to respond when I called 911, so I filed complaints against some officers with internal affairs. So then, the police conspired with my neighbor to set me up to be arrested. She confronted me on the stairs, blocking me from going to my vehicle and then recorded me without my consent. When I finally threatened her back, I was arrested and charged with a felony. I have proof of everything and I am also disabled. Can the video be used in court?

By anon1006100 — On Jan 27, 2022

Is there a good app on android that can spot these bugs and cameras?

By anon1002826 — On Feb 24, 2020

I need to have immediate action. I actually have had my security system internal speaker system hacked somehow. The one that goes two way to the local EMS/Police. I actually heard them discussing what I was wearing and what I was doing in my apartment. My blinds are always closed. I used an app that shows devices throughout my apartment including my bathroom. I called the police and the 2 people who showed up did not accurately identify themselves properly and the one male police officer grabbed the wire I was explaining out of my hand and tried to take it with him. I had a local legal case that there are associations with the local pd. Also, the woman wife of the company I had the legal case with had people in my apt. The apartment community I live in also had the front office staff hands out keys to vendors without accompanying them to apts. I have researched that local HVAC and Fire equipment install companies have surveillance capabilities. SO that is what renters have to deal with now.

By anon1002147 — On Sep 17, 2019

I am being watched right now in my apartment. I can actually feel people looking at me! It's awful and it makes me not want to be in my apartment. It's interesting that whenever I leave me apartment, someone who lives in my immediate vicinity seems to come outside at the exact same time. This happens more often than not. They are also listening to everything I say. Upon reading this article I totally see how my phone was hacked, as well as my G-mail account. So what do I do? I don't have money to buy a camera, like the police suggested. I don't even like showering because I can hear thumping on the walls when I'm in there and stomping on the ceiling directly above me. It's a terrible feeling, I hate it.

By anon996549 — On Sep 12, 2016

I have post traumatic stress disorder. To think that people are so pervertedly interested in what other people do really winds me up. The only thing is I find it difficult to prove that people do look into your business. It's disgusting.

By Markerrag — On Mar 09, 2014

The old "camera in the bathroom" thing is a practice that still taints the reputation of the famed Chuck Berry. In a nutshell, he owned a restaurant in Missouri called the Southern Air. He was sued by several women in a class action suit in the 1990s claiming he was filming them in the women's bathroom in that restaurant and Berry settled the case out of court.

Still, 20 years later, that incident taints Berry's legend more than a bit.

That is an extreme form of illegal surveillance, but it still highlights the notion that we simply don't approve of being filmed against our wishes in the United States. The problem, of course, is that what is legal or illegal surveillance is a matter of law and those can change easily unless citizens complain. The government will always have an excuse for authorizing more surveillance (claiming it's necessary to root out terrorism, etc.) and they can make formerly illegal practices legal unless we citizens throw a fit.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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