Speakers

Is It Illegal to Install a ‘Hidden’ Smart Speaker?

Certain state laws prohibit audio recording in covert applications, so can you disguise an Amazon Echo or Google Home?

Is It Illegal to Install a ‘Hidden’ Smart Speaker?
While you may decide the goofy glasses motif doesn't work for your Echo Dot, the question remains: Could you legally disguise an Amazon Echo or Google Home and use it to record audio?

Jason Knott · December 18, 2018

Integrators are likely installing multiple smart speakers on every project, with Google and Amazon listening to every word. But are you breaking the law when you install a smart speaker? Perhaps… especially if the smart speaker is hidden or designed to look like something other than a smart speaker. Unless you are careful, you just might be headed to the hoosegow.

There certainly can be some ethical gray areas that integrators confront when they are asked to install covert surveillance systems for customers. For example, is it OK to install hidden cameras in a strip club dressing room in an attempt to curb theft? (The answer is yes.) 

"Audio, and to a lesser extent video, interception by listening and recording is sometimes confusing."
— Ken Kirschenbaum

But audio recording has always been the grayest of all gray areas. And the issue is even more important today with the proliferation of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and others filled with multiple microphones.

The federal wiretap law 11 USC 2511 prohibits audio interception, listening or recording, unless at least one party has consented to the interception. However, some states have “all party laws” that are essentially similar to the federal law but require all parties, not just one party, to approve of the audio recording.

“If anyone has a statute that prohibits audio in a covert camera we'd all like to hear about it,” comments legal expert Ken Kirschenbaum of Kirschenbaum & Kirschenbaum and regular columnist for CE Pro’s sister publication Security Sales & Integration.

Related: Is It OK to Install Surveillance Cameras in Strip Club Dressing Room?

“Audio, and to a lesser extent video, interception by listening and recording is sometimes confusing because I think there are issues raised when the audio is concealed in a device that doesn't really work as one would expect.

"[The] best example is a smoke detector that's really a video or audio device. It would be potentially dangerous to have fake smoke detectors in place and I believe there are statutes that prohibit fake smoke detectors. It is essentially similar to the one party state laws [as opposed to the all party state laws],” he notes.

Integrators are often asked to “break the rules” in an installation. Most times, it is a request to break a rule of physics, like being asked to run a passive HDMI cable 50 feet and have the signal transmit perfectly… it ain’t gonna happen.

But in the case of audio recording for covert surveillance, the bottom line is to not disguise the unit as something else. That opens up liability. It is clearly best to check with your individual state laws.



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  About the Author

Jason Knott is Chief Content Officer for Emerald Expositions Connected Brands. Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990, serving as editor and publisher of Security Sales & Integration. He joined CE Pro in 2000 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of that brand. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He has been a member of the CEDIA Business Working Group since 2010. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Jason at jason.knott@emeraldexpo.com

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  Article Topics


Speakers · Loudspeakers · Security · Cameras · Surveillance Systems · Business · Business Operations · News · Amazon · Google · Google Home · Kirschenbaum · Legal · Security Camera · All Topics
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Comments

Posted by Paul Cunningham on December 21, 2018

So Oriigin Acoustic’s contraption that conceals a Dot as a ceiling speaker is no good, legally it seems

Posted by Ernie G on December 21, 2018

Re leggwork’s Dec 20 comment: Okay, but what Google and Amazon agree to about the uses of those recordings will have approximately zero effect on whether those recordings will be subpoenaed.

Posted by leggwork on December 20, 2018

I was getting at more about what those recordings can be used for.  As far as I’ve heard, Google/Amazon et al will require a court order to access the recordings made by an Echo or similar.  So I as a homeowner or even an integrator shouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that those devices can do recordings.  I suppose someone could hack into the data stream and make their own version of the recordings, but if you’re doing that, a covert microphone is a lot simpler to implement.  I would be **really** surprised if an integrator is held responsible for a hidden smart speaker installation.

Posted by Ernie G on December 19, 2018

I have recently unearthed about two hundred pounds of records made before 1920, many before 1920. Are they not recordings because “nobody can practically replay the recording”? There are pockets of fanatics here and there who have the means of playing back these recordings.

I cannot play several 16” transcription discs I have that were made in the 1940s—my tone arm assembly is less than 8” from the center of the records. Are they not recordings?

There are probably people in the digital sound realm who could play back the recordings made by “Hidden ‘Smart’ Speakers.”

Even if nobody we know has the capability of playing back these recordings, the very definition of the situation admits that they are recordings! Yeah, they are recordings.

I vaguely remember that there’s a book from perhaps the middle ages, written in a language that nobody has been able to decipher. Does that mean it’s not a book? Being unreadable does not null out its bookiness.

Posted by leggwork on December 19, 2018

but is it really “recording” when nobody can practically replay the recording?  Seems like the issue is more about what Google/Amazon et al agree to re not using the recordings for other than agreed-upon uses.  Are Echos illegal in states where all must assent - most lay people don’t realize that an Echo in plain sight is continuously recording/analysing the audio stream, let alone hidden.

Posted by Ernie G on December 19, 2018

“‘If anyone has a statute that prohibits audio in a covert camera we’d all like to hear about it,’ comments legal expert Ken Kirschenbaum….”

This is forbidden in at least those states where all parties to a conversation have to assent to its recording. Yes, it’s a camera, but while the statutes mentioned in the article refer to recording audio, this article does not refer in any way to the devices used to make such recordings, be they a mic, a hidden recorder, a camera, or a super-genius parrot.

Posted by Ernie G on December 19, 2018

“‘If anyone has a statute that prohibits audio in a covert camera we’d all like to hear about it,’ comments legal expert Ken Kirschenbaum….”

This is forbidden in at least those states where all parties to a conversation have to assent to its recording. Yes, it’s a camera, but while the statutes mentioned in the article refer to recording audio, this article does not refer in any way to the devices used to make such recordings, be they a mic, a hidden recorder, a camera, or a super-genius parrot.

Posted by leggwork on December 19, 2018

but is it really “recording” when nobody can practically replay the recording?  Seems like the issue is more about what Google/Amazon et al agree to re not using the recordings for other than agreed-upon uses.  Are Echos illegal in states where all must assent - most lay people don’t realize that an Echo in plain sight is continuously recording/analysing the audio stream, let alone hidden.

Posted by Ernie G on December 19, 2018

I have recently unearthed about two hundred pounds of records made before 1920, many before 1920. Are they not recordings because “nobody can practically replay the recording”? There are pockets of fanatics here and there who have the means of playing back these recordings.

I cannot play several 16” transcription discs I have that were made in the 1940s—my tone arm assembly is less than 8” from the center of the records. Are they not recordings?

There are probably people in the digital sound realm who could play back the recordings made by “Hidden ‘Smart’ Speakers.”

Even if nobody we know has the capability of playing back these recordings, the very definition of the situation admits that they are recordings! Yeah, they are recordings.

I vaguely remember that there’s a book from perhaps the middle ages, written in a language that nobody has been able to decipher. Does that mean it’s not a book? Being unreadable does not null out its bookiness.

Posted by leggwork on December 20, 2018

I was getting at more about what those recordings can be used for.  As far as I’ve heard, Google/Amazon et al will require a court order to access the recordings made by an Echo or similar.  So I as a homeowner or even an integrator shouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that those devices can do recordings.  I suppose someone could hack into the data stream and make their own version of the recordings, but if you’re doing that, a covert microphone is a lot simpler to implement.  I would be **really** surprised if an integrator is held responsible for a hidden smart speaker installation.

Posted by Ernie G on December 21, 2018

Re leggwork’s Dec 20 comment: Okay, but what Google and Amazon agree to about the uses of those recordings will have approximately zero effect on whether those recordings will be subpoenaed.

Posted by Paul Cunningham on December 21, 2018

So Oriigin Acoustic’s contraption that conceals a Dot as a ceiling speaker is no good, legally it seems