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Hidden camera concerns | Only 2% of unlawful surveillance reports in Georgia this year have resulted in conviction

Hidden "spy" cameras are more affordable and accessible than ever. When it comes to your privacy in Georgia, you may not have as much legal protection as you think.

ATLANTA — A growing number of Americans are choosing to rent a home for vacation, rather than booking the traditional hotel or resort. But concerns over hidden cameras are increasingly top of mind for many.

According to a survey by financial company IPX1031, one in four Americans said they have found a camera hidden at a vacation rental property, and nearly six out of every 10 said they’re worried about hidden cameras where they’re staying.

Some experts said that's not surprising. In fact, there's a valid reason for concern, explained Arjun Sethi, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown Law.

“We used to live in a time where it was much easier to safeguard and protect your privacy but in today's world it's much more difficult and elusive," he said.

Credit: WXIA

Hidden "spy" cameras are becoming more common and affordable, too. For less than $200, 11Alive investigators purchased five cameras; disguised as a clothing hook, a picture frame, a water bottle, a USB phone charger and a smoke detector. 

In Georgia, there is a law that makes it illegal to secretly record someone in “any private place out of public view.” However, it does explicitly allow homeowners to install cameras for security purposes. 

“A lot of law and regulation in this country is predisposed to favoring homeowners," Sethi said. "There is not an explicit constitutional right to privacy. It's something that... has been inferred, and can be hard to enforce."

Credit: WXIA

Data 11Alive obtained from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) showed in the past year, there have been 153 charges across 53 counties under the unlawful surveillance statute. However, only three resulted in a conviction.

Of the metro-area counties, Gwinnett had the most reports of unlawful surveillance, at seven. Cherokee had six reports, Forsyth had five and Fulton had three. Not a single one of those has yet resulted in an actual conviction. 

“Law enforcement may ultimately decide that the mistake was unintentional, that it wasn't a serious enough or cognizable harm, or it's not worth their time," Sethi explained. "You have these new technologies that we're just figuring out. The disparity exists because lawmakers are running behind, law enforcement is running behind.”

A GBI spokesperson said the low conviction rate may also be due to a backlog in cases and adjudication resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most vacation rental companies have their own policies in place to protect your privacy.

Airbnb for example requires any cameras on the property to be disclosed in the listing and prohibits their use in private areas like bathrooms and bedrooms.

However, Sethi said even that can be a gray area.

“If there is a camera that is stationed outside that's allowed under Airbnb rules, 'How long is that data kept?'" he said. "'Who was that data being shared with?' There may be scenarios where it could still be used in nefarious ways.”

There are certain devices available for purchase that claim to help detect hidden cameras, like this infrared detector or this anti-spy bug sweeper.

If you do find an undisclosed camera in a property you're renting, experts said you should file a report with both the police and the rental company.

Sethi said it's also important to advocate for your own right to privacy.

“History has taught us that we live in a world where everyone is being watched and the greatest protection is ultimately going to come from yourself," he said. "Ask questions about where cameras are located, what they're capturing, so that you can better protect yourself.”

In Georgia, unlawful surveillance is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison, and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Keep in mind if you have cameras outside your home for security, if it's facing or capturing anyone else’s private property, you could be in violation of the law.


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