Legality of public restaurant unmarked audio/video surveillance
August 24, 2006 2:57 PM   Subscribe

What are the (US/WA/Seattle) laws regarding video, and audio, surveillance in a restaurant- of both employees and customers?

There's a restaurant/bar I go to where all but hidden into the ceilings (you can see them, but only if you look really hard, and know what you're looking for- I never noticed them until an employee pointed them out, and the restaurant is quite dimly lit by design) are little webcams all over the place. They cover the kitchen area and employee-only areas, apparently, but also most of the main dining area and the bar space itself. In addition, an employee there told me there is audio surveillance as well in at least the main bar area, and that the owner is able to watch and listen to them from home. There are no posted signs at least publicly suggesting these cameras, much less any microphones, are around.

Is this legal? Even if legal for the employees to be monitored with both video and audio surveillance- workers tend to have very limited rights in this regard, from what I saw in searching- is it legal for the audio and video recording to be in place in a restaurant with no posted warnings? While it's a public place, I would think there's a reasonable expectation of privacy on the part of the customers that their conversations and actions while dining won't be recorded, and the cameras (much less microphones) in the public areas should at least be advertised or made clear to those dining there.
posted by hincandenza to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oooh what restaurant?
posted by xmutex at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2006

I won't say! I almost posted anonymously, because I have good friends who work there, and don't want to get anyone in trouble. I guess the follow up question would be "[If it's illegal,] how to make it stop without having the employees bear the brunt of the employer's wrath?"
posted by hincandenza at 3:16 PM on August 24, 2006

My understanding is that WA is one of the stricter states when it comes to wiretapping or clandestine taping of conversations. See, for example, this link.

IANAL, but I suspect that the customers have a potential lawsuit. The employees probably don't, especially if they know about the taping.
posted by cgs06 at 3:40 PM on August 24, 2006

Name me a restaurant or bar these days that doesn't have some level of surveillance. This place may be on the far-side of overkill but I doubt any of it's illegal. At least the video probably isn't. Now, the audio...I'm not sure. That's a new one.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:00 PM on August 24, 2006

Maybe we could have the next Seattle MeFi Meetup there, and it'd pay for itself!
posted by hincandenza at 4:04 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not clear what expectation of privacy you are entitled to in a restaurant, but I'd expect a court to say "little to none", unless you are seated in a private dining room.

this site seems to be claiming that ...

Covert video surveillance is illegal when:

The subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy (4th Amendment rights) i.e. in a bathroom; motel room; changing room

If audio eavesdropping is also taking place, covert surveillance may be illegal when:

The person with authority over the premises has not consented
The reason for the video surveillance fosters an illegal purpose

Since the owner has consented, and the recording isn't for illegal purposes, but rather for crime fighting, it seems likely the restaurant is in the clear. Especially since you state that the cameras are fully visible, just not very noticeable. That's a big difference from actively hidden cameras.
posted by nomisxid at 4:21 PM on August 24, 2006

Not an answer but might help: After that guy in WA a few years back was videoing up women's skirts, arrested, taken to court, and found not guilty because the law did not prohibit covert upskirt photography in a public place, the resulting outrage caused every local politician under the sun to smell easy votes and propose various new laws to make it illegal.

So, until recently, this sort of thing was most likely legal in WA, but the law may have been changed within the last four years, so if researching it, don't use outdated sources :)

posted by -harlequin- at 4:51 PM on August 24, 2006

While it's a public place...

No, it's not. And that's where most people go awry when it comes to privacy and property laws.

As soon you step foot inside a restaurant, you're on private property. The owner can do whatever the hell he/she wants, just like you can do in your own house.

There are some limitations, but these limitations boil down to overt or inferred actions and invitations by the owners -- e.g. a open restaurant door means you can walk in without fear of trespassing, because a reasonable person infers an invitation from this situation. By the same token, a locked door infers disallowed access. And the camera in the bathroom thing -- in this case, a reasonable person would infer that, unless otherwise stated, the owner is warranting your privacy.
posted by frogan at 5:16 PM on August 24, 2006

Imette St. Guillen's recent murder in NYC raised some interesting questions about surveillance in and around businesses, especially when it turned out her accused killer was a bouncer in a bar she was patronising. A law has been proposed requiring cameras at the door of every city bar, presumably for the protection of the public. Better background checks on bouncers and bartenders would probably be more effective. It could have saved Imette: her accused killer was an ex-con who should not have been working nights, had access to weapons, etc.
posted by Scram at 5:59 AM on August 25, 2006

I used to work in a restaurant, and we had cameras in several key places because restaurants tend to get robbed a lot, not because we had any interest in what customers were doing. Nobody ever watched the tapes (unless, of course, there was a robbery) and we reused a limited number of tapes so that each one was recorded over after 7 days or something like that. Once, someone subpoenaed our tapes for some lawsuit that involved customers that would have been on a tape - but it was months later so we had long since taped over it.

That doesn't answer your question, but I just wanted to point out that the purpose of the cameras probably isn't so that the owner can eavesdrop on your conversation.

You would be surprised at how many hidden cameras there are everywhere (and non-hidden ones that you don't notice).
posted by clarissajoy at 6:01 AM on August 25, 2006

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