What is Illegal Surveillance?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

Many parking lots have security cameras.
Many parking lots have security cameras.

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.

Surveillance is often crucial to law enforcement investigations; it is also frequently helpful in the work of private detectives.
Surveillance is often crucial to law enforcement investigations; it is also frequently helpful in the work of private detectives.

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.

Private citizens are often forbidden from conducting surveillance.
Private citizens are often forbidden from conducting surveillance.

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.

Hackers may install Trojan software to monitor a person's online activities.
Hackers may install Trojan software to monitor a person's online activities.

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.

Illegal surveillance includes the theft of sensitive documents.
Illegal surveillance includes the theft of sensitive documents.
Covert surveillance might be used to try and catch criminals in the act.
Covert surveillance might be used to try and catch criminals in the act.
Evidence gathered through illegal surveillance may not be admissible in a court of law.
Evidence gathered through illegal surveillance may not be admissible in a court of law.
Quadcopters may be used for video surveillance, which could be illegal depending on where and the manner in which they are used.
Quadcopters may be used for video surveillance, which could be illegal depending on where and the manner in which they are used.
Hidden listening devices may be used to record someone sharing secret information, but the tape may not be admissible in court.
Hidden listening devices may be used to record someone sharing secret information, but the tape may not be admissible in court.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments

anon1002826

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.

anon1002147

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.

anon996549

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.

Markerrag

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.

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