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In the United States, is one's workplace generally considered to be a place where an employee can assume a relative level of privacy from hidden surveillance?

For example, suppose that I had a private office at work. Can I legally assume a reasonable level of privacy in my "private" office. Or can my employer record, without my knowledge, conversations I have with my wife on my personal cell phone during my lunch break? Can my employer just have a live mic hooked up in my office 24-7 to see if I say anything they do not like?

Legal disclaimer: This is a hypothetical question and I am not under the suspicion of my employer recording my conversations with my wife. I am not seeking personal legal advice for me or my agents.

  • If it's the employer's site, the employer's equipment (mic enabled laptop present? ), and the employer's time, I would have no expectation of privacy. – user662852 Aug 8 '15 at 15:59
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You are right that this is probably a private space; you are wrong in thinking it is your private space; it isn't. The space belongs to your employer and they can do whatever they want with their space unless there is a law that says they can't.

As to what type of "hidden surveillance" is allowed that depends on your particular circumstances including what state and federal laws apply and the employment contract you are covered by.

As a starting point, if this was happening in Australia then:

  • If you gave permission, all would be legal
  • If you did not give permission:
    • it would be illegal to record anything taking place across a public telecommunications system (i.e. phone tapping)
    • it would be legal for anyone to make an audio recording (not phone tapping) of any conversation to which they were a party
    • it would be legal to make a video recording without sound.
  • So if you're alone in your office I'd think that any audio recordings would be illegal. – Andy Aug 31 '15 at 0:28
  • @Andy Not necessarily. If you have consented to this (maybe in your employment agreement) then it is legal. If I ring you up, put you on speaker and use a recording device that is not connected to the phone to record the sounds then this is legal too. – Dale M Aug 31 '15 at 2:17
  • If its in your contract that you consented that's different; if the call is on speaker phone it depends (I'm assuming the contract and speaker phone are two separate points your raising). Some states in the USA require ALL parties in the conversation to consent to recording, and if you don't get it you're violating the state's wiretap law. However, I've never worked for an employer that every had anything about recording in the office, so while you're right there it's also probably not widespread. – Andy Aug 31 '15 at 17:38
  • Query a possible ambiguity when reading this answer of yours where you state that you must have consent of all parties to a telephone conversation. – jimsug Sep 1 '15 at 11:47
  • @DaleM, video recording of a closed-door office would unlikely ever be legal without an explicit notification; a private office with lock and dark blinds would give the occupant a rather reasonable expectation of privacy -- maybe they want to change after a gym etc) -- so, video recording with shut doors and no signs would unlikely to be legal – cnst Sep 16 '15 at 6:07
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In general, video recording is always allowed everywhere, unless one has a reasonable expectation of privacy. (I don't see how a place of employment would be much different in this regard.)

For example, if you're having a lunch break in a break room, and anyone else could come in at any time, it would not be reasonable to have an expectation of privacy even when noone else is around (say, you popped in during a holiday). To avoid any possible confusion, many employers in the US may explicitly put signs like "area subject to surveillance".

On the other hand, if you have a private office with a locking door and completely dark blinds or no windows, it would appear quite fitting to be able to use it to e.g. change after a gym, without video monitoring taking place in such private moments; it would appear to be improper for an employer to covertly record such areas without a clear and visible signs of such policy.


Audio is different and varies between state lines; very often the recording could only be made by persons that are a party to the conversation, unless everyone's permission to the recording has been obtained.

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