If you tally up supers, landlords, doormen, roommates, house cleaners, dog walkers, nannies, pet sitters, and assorted friends and neighbors, you get a surprisingly large number of people that may very well have keys to an apartment you're renting or Airbnb-ing. Which means there are that many people who could potentially plant a hidden camera in your bookcase and secretly record your every move for their own sick pleasure.
[An earlier version of this post was published in 2014 and has been updated with new information in July 2018.]
Think we sound paranoid? Possibly. But consider the case of Aksana Kuzmitskaya, a young woman who claimed her former landlords installed secret cameras in her bedroom and bathroom, filming her private life on 70-odd occasions. In exchange for cleaning apartments at their Upper West Side building, they had given her room and board. (Kuzmitskaya sued the two men she deemed responsible, and one—who had done the same to another woman—was ultimately sentenced to a year of therapy and ordered to stay away from his victims.)
In the interest of avoiding such an egregiously creepy situation, we spoke to Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security (no relation to Brick Underground), a Manhattan-based security and surveillance company, who enlightened us on how to spot a landlord spy, and what to do if you have one.
How do I catch someone filming me?
“The best thing to do is know when someone is in your apartment and they shouldn’t be,” says Morris, since that will be your first clue that they may have installed surveillance equipment. Common sense suggests that you should check that your stuff hasn’t been moved, but that's harder to do if you live with other people or animals.
“If you have pets or roommates, people become oblivious to things moving around,” says Morris, who jokes that someone could install a camera on his own rather messy desk and he’d never know it. Some New Yorkers who have two locks will purposely leave one unlocked so that if someone comes in and out of the apartment, heedlessly securing the deadbolt, for example, they’ll know they've had an unwanted visitor.
What should I do if I find a hidden camera?
Don’t touch it; call the police, advises Morris. The cops will dust the equipment for fingerprints and, if they’re able to find any clues about the owner’s identity, will try to track them down. It’s wise to get the police involved before telling your landlord or condo/co-op board, according to Morris, as they may tell someone like the super, who could be the perpetrator.
What about surveillance in my own apartment?
It’s perfectly legal to use a hidden camera in your own abode, as long as it's not in a place where your nanny or roommate has a reasonable expectation of privacy, Morris explains. A living room or child’s room are fair game; the au pair’s bedroom or bathroom are not. A good rule of thumb: if a person would assume you’d knock before entering, you’re probably not allowed to plant a camera there.
Cameras made for apartment surveillance start at around $100, with the most popular models costing between $200 and $300, Morris says. Your basic model will have a time-stamped recording (so the footage will hold up in court) and a motion sensor (so it only records when someone enters the room, saving you from wading through hours of footage of nothing). “Hidden cameras come in all shapes and sizes,” says Morris. “They can really look like almost anything.” (Note: There's a federal law prohibiting the sale and use of devices designed to covertly record the voices of people without their consent, so most won't record audio.)
What are the penalties for spying?
Planting a hidden camera could get your landlord slapped with trespassing and stalking charges. “If you catch someone in a state of undress—god forbid it’s someone underage—it could be even worse,” Morris says.
People are often caught because they post the footage online.
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