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Eavesdropping refers to the listening in of private conversations and/or observing private conduct without obtaining consent from the party being watched. The private communication had by the party usually occurs in a place the party deems to be safe from others, such as the person’s home, an enclosed phone booth, the person’s vehicle, etc. However, eavesdropping protections can also be applied to conversations had in public places, in some circumstances. 

Many states have laws against eavesdropping when a person listens in on a private conversation without consent from the parties. New York Penal Law § 250.05 makes it a felony to eavesdrop on a telephone conservation without obtaining consent from at least one of the parties engaged in the conversation. A person convicted under this statute will face up to a four-year prison sentence.  

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 governs the area of employee privacy. The Act provides that there are some circumstances in which eavesdropping is allowed, such as an employer monitoring an employee’s job-related phone and email conversations when the conversation is had using company equipment. An employer may be able to use visible video surveillance in the workplace without violating employee privacy, so long as the recordings don’t occur in private places such as a restroom.

State statutes also outline what kind of conversations employers may and may not be privy to. For example, some states require employers to notify newly hired employees of any cameras in the workplace.

[Last updated in July of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team