Personal Spy Gear: Is It Ethical? Is It Legal?

How safe is the info?

A related issue that few parents think about, Tien said, is that if you use a GPS device to track your child, that data -- their whereabouts and other information -- is now available to whatever company collects it. That could put your children at risk from unscrupulous companies. "You really want to think about how long do [the GPS vendors and their partners] keep the data and who else can see it," he said.

If a company collected this type of data about a celebrity, an unscrupulous worker could look up data and release the information for monetary gain to the media, Tien added. "That's human nature; no one should be surprised by it. But we've got to realize when we're creating this kind of data that there are people who are going to be interested in looking at it. And there are others who can gain access illegally."

The key is to ask lots of questions before buying and using such devices, such as whether the tracking information is stored, where it is stored, who can access and view it, and whether any third parties ever have access to the information, Tien said.

The legal questions

Behnam Dayanim, an attorney with Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, said the legal lines on the use of such devices can be blurry.

"The acceptability or permissibility of these techniques depends on several factors, including where they were activated, who is undertaking the activity and what notice is provided to the subject of the activation," Dayanim said. "There are different degrees of privacy interests. The greatest privacy interest is in your own home."

In other words, homeowners could claim they are permitted to collect information about others who are inside their homes. But if someone collects information about you in your home without your permission, that would be an invasion of your privacy, he said.

A sampling of security gear

There's an ocean of high-tech personal security devices out there. These are only a few:

Hidden cameras

GPS trackers

Audio recorders (with automatic voice activation)

"You [should] talk to somebody about the law" when they are making a purchase, SpyGear4U's Scott said. "By law people aren't allowed to record a phone conversation if the other person isn't aware of it. We have the laws posted on our site, but we can't be the police."

He admitted that there are a lot of illegal products available on the Internet. "I don't carry them," Scott said, including devices sold in Europe and elsewhere that allow someone to capture others' cell phone calls on their own phones in real time so they can listen in. "It's not something I want to sell," Scott said. "I don't want a knock on my door six months from now" from the police.

"I think your legal position is much stronger [if you use this type of equipment] in your own home," Dayanim said. "I don't think the law is completely settled on nanny cams . . . but I think there are certainly strong consensuses to a claim."

If you do record a guest's actions in your home, you may be able to defend a legal challenge. "I don't think there [are] any state laws" regulating this, he said. But all 50 states do have laws regulating audio recording of telephone conversations, so it could be argued that the situations are similar. Twelve states -- California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington - legally allow tape recording of telephone conversations only when they are recorded with the consent of both parties, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The other 38 states allow telephone recording with the consent of only one of the parties to the call.

Protection Pros notes on its Web site that some items may or may not be legal for use in all states across the U.S. and advises buyers to check with their local laws. "Most people don't ask," Bowser said.

To best protect yourself from successful legal actions by others if you are considering using such devices, Dayanim said, you need to let people know that they could be filmed or recorded while in your home. "Giving them notice solves a lot of problems."

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