Q: I recently learned that more than a year ago the landlord in my rent-stabilized building installed hidden cameras in the hallways to monitor the comings and goings of a tenant he suspected was not using the apartment as his primary residence. The tenant has since been evicted, presumably because of the evidence provided by the cameras. The landlord told the tenant, however, that he intends to leave the cameras in place to try to detect other potential non primary-residence tenants. Is the use of hidden cameras in the building hallways legal? A. W. Hopkins, Manhattan.
A: Lucas A. Ferrara, a Manhattan lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant matters, said that under existing state law there are surprisingly few restrictions on the use of a person's "name, portrait or picture," unless they are being exploited commercially or fraudulently. And since there is a legal distinction between the mere taking of a picture and using the picture that has been taken for commercial or fraudulent purposes, Mr. Ferrara said, it is likely that the courts would not find the videotaping of common areas or public places to be an invasion of privacy. "The irony here is that many tenants and building owners embrace surveillance cameras in common areas such as basements, elevators, lobbies and hallways, because they offer a level of protection against criminal activity," Mr. Ferrara said. "Yet the price paid for this safeguard is the possible admission of those videotapes as evidence in court when a tenant is injured or when the tenant is accused of having engaged in some form of wrongful conduct recorded by the equipment." Mr. Ferrara added that it would clearly be an invasion of privacy if the videotaping had occurred in a private place, such as a tenant's apartment, without the tenant's consent.