Legal Eagle: Who owns surveillance video?

Published 14 December 2006

An ATM robbery prompts the question after the bank refuses to show surveillance footage to the aggrieved customer; Ken Kirschenbaum urges companies to comply with law enforcement requests; in most cases, no harm can come of sharing footage, so long as the company is not worried about what the tapes might show about their own procedures

In San Francisco recently, an interesting story was reported about a man who was robbed while withdawing money at an ATM. When he asked the bank to show him the surveillance footage, however, he did not receive the customer care he might have expected. The bank told him the video tape was private property and would only be released to the police on issuance of a subpoena. Which raises critical questions: Who owns surveillance video, what are the legal implications of showing it to interested customers, and how willing should companies be to show it to police, subpoenas notwithstanding?

For legal questions like this, we always turn to attorney Ken Kirschenbaum, whose Long Island, New York-based practice is dedicated to security issues. According to Kirschenbaum, “the video recording is the property of the bank or the surveillance company providing the service if independent of the bank. The bank would have no obligation to provide the recording to anyone voluntarily, though as possible evidence of a crime, it would need to be available to law enforcement agencies, if so requested.” Just what we would have thought, too, based on our own legal training.

Nevertheless, counselor Kirschenbaum advises companies to be liberal in sharing their video with law enforcement authorities. “There is no real reason why the bank should insist on a formal subpoena or court order before providing the video footage to the appropriate law enforcement agency,” he notes. No civil liabilty would attach, he surmises, because the video is owned by the company, it is not being used for commercial purposes such as advertising, and whatever it filmed would by definition either be on its own property or public property, so there would be no expectation of privacy.

One concern: There have been cases where a customer sued a bank for failing to provide adequate security. In such lawsuits, the ATM surveillance footage was used as evidence against the company. For that reason, Kirschenbaum advises that banks and other establishments be careful, as in the case above, with sharing the tape with individuals.

-read more in Ken Kirschenbaum’s SecurityInfoWatch analysis