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Video Doorbells Pitting Security Against the Right to Privacy

Bill Morris in Legal/Financial on August 5, 2021

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Video doorbells, the cloud, security, personal privacy, co-op and condo boards.
Aug. 5, 2021

A family in a pricey Upper West Side co-op was distraught. The neighbor directly across the small foyer had installed a video doorbell that recorded video and audio every time someone entered the foyer. Worse, the camera was trained at the distraught family’s door, meaning the comings and goings of guests were recorded, as were the goings-on inside the apartment whenever the door was open.

That was when the phone rang at Theresa Racht’s law office. The distraught shareholder wanted to hire Racht to get the co-op board to remove the video camera, which was installed, unannounced, on top of the doorbell in the foyer wall, which is a common area and therefore under the control of the board. For Racht, it was a clear case of one person’s desire for security clashing with another person’s desire for privacy.

“It’s not the same as having a peephole in your door,” Racht says, “and it’s going to become a real headache. The problem is two-fold. First, whatever audio and video is being picked up is then sent to an electronic device of the camera owner’s, and it’s saved in the cloud. Second, it’s basically hackable. What happens if a teenager gets his hands on it and puts it on Facebook?”

Racht advised her client to circulate a petition among like-minded shareholders asking the board to establish a policy banning video doorbells. Racht no longer represents the distraught family, but the last she heard of the standoff was that the board had demanded that the camera be removed but the owner had refused to do so.

“It’s definitely an interesting privacy issue,” says Peter Massa, a partner at the law firm Armstrong Teasdale who has dealt with similar conflicts in a handful of the co-ops and condos he represents. “It becomes a balancing act for the board: one person says they need it for security; a neighbor says it’s pointing into my apartment and invading my privacy. These devices were created for single-family homes. Most people object to having them in a multi-family building because you’re monitoring people. And if it’s a doorman building, most people feel there are already enough security measures.”

Massa has advice for how boards can handle the balancing act. “My general guidance is that buildings should not permit them unless the applicant gets permission from everyone on the floor,” he says. “Under law you cannot monitor audio in a public space, and you can’t point a camera at someone’s door. But it’s very hard to monitor if people are breaking the rules.”

Boards, according to Racht, need to take action before a conflict arises. “I would advise boards to have a discussion and decide if they want to allow the devices or ban them,” she says. “My advice is to ban them, but I could see a board allowing them in a non-doorman building. If they decide to allow them, they need to set guidelines. For example, everyone on the floor has to agree, and if one person doesn’t agree, they can’t put it in, period.

Inaction, she adds, is not an option. “Boards need to figure out what’s right for their building,” she says. “And then they need to take a stand.”

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