Not only are we a watched society out on the streets, in offices, in shops; we’re also now under inspection in our homes and in the homes of others too. Smart home cameras have rocketed in popularity, and big name devices from Nest, Hive and others are helping us stay connected with our homes, check on our pets and kids, and boost our security, too.
But how are we supposed to feel about being recorded in our homes and those of our families? How do we expect our guests to feel knowing that our smart cameras trained on them? And, most importantly of all, do we need to tell them? It’s time we codified the etiquette around it.
William Hanson is the UK’s 'freshest and most trustworthy authority on etiquette and protocol' - at least that’s what it says on his website. He’s written a book on the topic and, after speaking to him, we were inclined to agree.
Hanson teaches in the UK and overseas - private households, high commissions and all sorts high-end brands - and helps people to understand how to behave in polite company. He also happens to own a Ring doorbell camera which made him something of a perfect match for our purposes but, as far as internal smart cameras go, William was ruthlessly clear right off the mark.
“Quite frankly - regardless of the camera issue - if it's their house, it's their rules. If they want a hot pink sofa, then it's their house, they're paying for it. For guests, it’s a ‘when in Rome’ mentality. You don’t go to another country and start telling them what to do because it’s not your country and the same applies for someone else’s house.
It's the same for the babysitter, the cleaner and everyone else. If you’ve already got a cleaner and you’re going to install a camera, then you talk to them about it
"If you’re a guest in someone else’s house, you are expected to fall in line. If you don’t like the house, then don’t gocameras, I think guests don’t have much of a foot to stand on, especially if the cameras are obvious," Hanson said.
“If they’re hidden nanny cams, that’s different. I think nanny cams are a bit creepy and I think it’s unfair on the nanny or au pair or whoever. If I had a nanny and I had a camera installed, I would point to it out and tell them exactly where it is and what it’s doing. It should be part of the job interview process – if they're not happy with it then they don’t accept the job.
“It's the same for the babysitter, the cleaner and everyone else. If you’ve already got a cleaner and you’re going to install a camera, then you talk to them about it. It’s all communication. They shouldn’t have to turn up and find out it looks like the Big Brother house. Talk to them.”
Communication is the key
Clear enough for the hired help, then, but do we really need to tell our guests about the cameras in the room? As Hanson says, it’s your castle. We’re not being rude or doing anything gauche by doing so in the first place but it seems that communication is still key.
“Full disclosure. You know it’s not recording but they don’t really and I’m sure there are some households where they say, ‘oh, it's not recording’ but it is recording. It’s where you try and hide it, I think, that it’s a bit unfair on everybody.”
Co-founder and Design Director of smart security camera stalwart and specialist Canary is not so hard line, however.
“I have Canarys in my home and they’re always recording. A lot of our users do that. When you have guests, I don't think you need to tell them. It all comes down to the assumed level of privacy,” he said.
“When you’re an Airbnb guest, there’s an assumed level of privacy which is completely private and you should feel that way. With a nanny or tradesperson, it’s different and when you’re over at someone’s house as a guest, the assumed level of privacy is totally different again. As a guest. you’re not alone. You’re there with your host, so you’re not going to do anything on camera that you wouldn’t do otherwise.
“For an Airbnb guest, for the time that they’re in your house, your home is theirs and in that case, you have to treat them differently. Obviously, you need to tell them. Probably for outdoor cameras, I think, it’s a little bit different. A lot of Airbnb guests would be fine with that anyway because it’s for their security as well.”
As it goes, Airbnb forbids the use of smart home security cameras if you’re listed on their website as a host but, practically speaking, it’s more likely that, as suggested by both Troutman and Hanson, the guests and hosts simply communicate over the matter instead.
Of course, there’s always the situation where your neighbours themselves end up on camera because you’ve got your Nest Cam Outdoor partially pointed their way. Do you need your neighbour’s permission? No, but maybe you should tell them says Hanson.
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“If you’ve got neighbours and the cameras are going to pick things up, out of common courtesy, you tell your neighbours. You don’t need to ask if they’re ok with it, you just let them know and be polite.
“In my other house, we had a Ring doorbell camera and it’s obviously a camera. You have to be a complete idiot not to realise it’s a camera and it was terrible useful. I did say to all the neighbours, ‘just so you know, we’ve got this’. I explained how it works and they were all fine with it and very curious and interested and rather taken by it. They were all 35 and under and I do wonder if it would have been different if they were 60, for example.”
Whatever the case, the answer to the outdoor smart security camera etiquette conundrum seems to be the same - tell people whom it may affect.
Home cameras vs. spy cameras
While Canary has always designed its products to not look like what you’d expect a utility cameras to look like, the company has never been in the business of trying to hide them, but, whatever the intention, Troutman admits that there are still people who buy them with the specific intention of keeping them hidden from the people that they’re looking to record.
“They’ve never meant to be spy cameras. That’s not the kind of world we’re trying to create but we have had people catch caregivers being not only neglectful but even abusive to people they’re supposed to have been looking after.
Sometimes, it’s hard to not feel that it’s a really good thing to use it for. I still believe that, personally, it’s almost better to tell people there’s a cameras there because letting know that someone is watching can get people on their best behaviour… but I’m not here to judge and I understand that there may have been something going on for years and they need some evidence of it and it’s up to the user to decide the best way to handle it.”
When it comes to smart home security cameras, it’s all about transparency. But once we’ve told our invited guests that they’re being watched, does William Hanson think it’s likely to put polite company off ever returning?
“I think you do have to accept that culturally and generationally, it’s a bit weird for some people. It’s consideration for other people, that’s going to count. That’s really all manners are. While a hot pink sofa can definitely work, I think a piece of furniture like that might be more likely to put a guest off than a smart home camera.”