Smile, You’re on Camera! Video surveillance on the rise, but employers should proceed with caution

Security cameras used to be the province of banks, tech firms, and other organizations that felt a need for close scrutiny in their workplaces and had the financial wherewithal to afford the pricey systems. But today, prices have plummeted while quality has dramatically increased, leading to their use in homes and businesses of all sorts.

“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years. What I’ve seen is extreme growth with video surveillance,” said David Hood, director of business development with the security firm EPS, which was founded in Grand Rapids in 1955 and has offices in Traverse City, Petoskey and Kalamazoo.

Today, surveillance includes everything from in the office or store to the home and the street.

“It’s more accepted in today’s culture, and the culture of business,” Hood said.

Evening newscasts show videos of crimes being committed, often asking for help in identifying suspects shown in the footage. Hood told of a recent situation where a man called police to notify them that his home was being robbed. When asked how he knew, he responded that he was watching it on his phone as it happened. The suspects were captured in the act.

Hood recalled his first involvement with a digital recording system 18 years ago. A bank in Chicago installed a system that was then state-of-the-art. “The bank needed 90 days of storage. It had 16 cameras and (cost) $30,000. Today, that same system would cost about $5,000. The DVR had 25 Gigs (of storage). Today a flash drive can have more.”

These days, do-it-yourselfers interested in protecting their property with video can get a starter set at the local electronics store for approximately $39.99. That’s the least expensive camera available now at Best Buy. At Amazon, a buyer can find a four-camera set on sale for $99. They all promise easy setup and connect with several models of smartphones. Heck, they even have night vision.

If it seems like everyone is getting in on the action, that’s not quite true. But close. Beyond the security firms and the Best Buys and Amazons, for example, Traverse City’s Macintosh dealer is now selling home security equipment. “We’ve kept sort of a low profile. Our bread and butter is all things Macintosh,” said Greg Nickerson of CityMac.

But that’s changing. “At this point, we’re going to roll out a line in the store and have the software and products for people. We’ve ordered the cameras and equipment, but the real key is the software. It’s got to be easy,” he said.

With that in mind, the store will be selling Macintosh’s Homekit software, which Nickerson says is the key to ease of use. Not only will the software link cameras together into a security system, it can also serve as the brains of a smart house or office, including working with HVAC systems, locking automated doors and windows, window shades, etc.

Nickerson said the increasing quality of the products and the de-escalating prices portend an industry on the rise. “It’s expected to go from $2 billion to $20 billion in a few years. Demand is high and price is low, so we can all afford it.”

But Is It Legal?
Those interested in policing their workplaces still need to be aware of the laws surrounding invasion of privacy. Matt Boyd, an attorney with Kuhn Rogers PLC, said in general employers can place cameras in locations where members of the public have access, such as a lobby. “Conversely, they should never be in an area where the employee has an expectation of privacy, like bathrooms or changing areas,” he said.

Boyd said there are some gray areas, such as break rooms, where it could be argued both ways. One way to mitigate that is to be sure everyone knows about the cameras and that they have a purpose, such as keeping employees safe. “We suggest employers let all the employees know about (cameras), and they are for a legitimate business purpose,” Boyd said. That means mounting them where they are obvious, and perhaps even using signage to remind everyone that video surveillance is in effect.

Hood also noted the prohibition against recording audio. “Unless it’s a state or federal agency, law enforcement,” he said.

He also noted that the uses for watching over things by video go beyond security. “Manufacturers can use them for safety reasons, or to look at processes. They can analyze and make (the processes) better. Or, in manufacturing, if the line stops, someone can be alerted.

Of course, video cameras aren’t solely relegated to the workplace. “It’s also a lifestyle,” said Hood. “You can check in on your dog.”