In 2006, police in Nashua, New Hampshire, filed charges against Michael Gannon for using a security system in his home. When he brought a security recording to the police to back up a complaint about how he was treated, they arrested him and charged him with “felony wiretapping” — recording what happened in his own house. They were later forced to drop the charges under intense publicity.
The relevant New Hampshire law is titled “Wiretapping and Eavesdropping,” but it isn’t restricted to electronic communications.
It’s a felony if someone “willfully intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any telecommunication or oral communication.”
Intercepting means “the aural or other acquisition of, or the recording of, the contents of any telecommunication or oral communication through the use of any electronic, mechanical, or other device.” Oral communication means “any verbal communication uttered by a person who has a reasonable expectation that the communication is not subject to interception, under circumstances justifying such expectation,” but the law doesn’t define “reasonable expectation.”
Recording what someone else says can be a felony unless it falls under the reasonable-expectation exception. Burglars don’t expect to be recorded. I live in the same city as Gannon; if thieves broke into my home and I recorded their activity, would I dare bring the evidence to the police?
The New Hampshire law is a “two-party consent” law; you can’t even record your own conversation with someone else without letting him or her know. Nine to twelve states, depending on interpretation, have two-party consent requirements.
In recent years activists have successfully pushed back against using those laws to prevent or punish recording police activity. Courts have held that when they’re on duty, cops don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Governments can still use the law against people who record other public speech, though.
In 2015, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Christopher David was charged with felony wiretapping for recording a conversation on a public street. He recorded a private citizen telling him he could be prosecuted for running an Uber vehicle, which the city has banned. It’s easy to suspect the city is going after him for competing with the city’s taxis, but officially, his “crime” is recording words directed at him in public.
Illinois had a similarly draconian law often used to punish recording the police, which the state’s Supreme Court struck down. The court held:
The recording provision of the eavesdropping statute ... burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to serve a legitimate state interest in protecting conversational privacy. Thus, it does not survive intermediate scrutiny. We hold that the recording provision is unconstitutional on its face because a substantial number of its applications violate the First Amendment.
Any legal prohibition ought to satisfy the question, “What harm to someone does it deter?” Recording a person who comes up to you in public and tells you something doesn’t injure him in any way. If he’s giving away information he doesn’t want known, that’s on his own head.
Eugene Volokh notes that without a clear definition of privacy, prohibitions ostensibly designed to protect it can seriously infringe on free speech. “Once restrictions on people's speech are accepted in the name of ‘privacy,’ people will likely use them to argue for other restrictions on ‘privacy’ grounds, even when the matter involves a very different sort of ‘privacy.’” This is a serious matter, because “the right to information privacy — my right to control your communication of personally identifiable information about me — is a right to have the government stop you from speaking about me.”
Modern technology allows anyone to make video recordings in public, and if anyone’s voice is picked up without consent, the recording could be a crime punishable by years in jail. David Rittgers, an attorney and legal policy analyst at the Cato Institute, argues, “I think in this modern age where everyone has a ‘felony machine’ in their pocket — a cell phone — the [all-party] consent law is outdated.”
When the government surreptitiously captures records of our private communications, it tells us we shouldn’t worry if we have nothing to hide. When we record people speaking openly in public, quite a different standard applies.
Most of the debate about abusive wiretapping and eavesdropping laws has focused on their use to protect police officers caught misbehaving. The problem doesn’t stop there, though. When “reasonable expectation of privacy” isn’t clearly delimited, any recording of what people say in public can become an excuse to throw people in jail.