When Couples Can’t Agree on Surveillance in the Home

She wants a pet camera in the house. He doesn’t. Now what?

A man and woman argue over a in-home surveillance camera.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by vadimguzhva/iStock/Getty Images Plus and hayatikayhan/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Online forums are riddled with an emerging domestic conflict. The man whose wife insisted on a living room camera to keep an eye on the rescue kittens, and then refused to take it down, even once they were all adopted out. The woman whose husband wanted cameras in the house, on top of the ones already outside, for “security,” which made her worried she was being weird for not wanting them. Or the woman whose husband wanted to put security cameras “all through the house 24/7,” prompting her to ask about her legal rights.

Home surveillance systems were once a luxury available only to the wealthy and gadget-obsessed, but they’ve never been cheaper or easier to install, not to mention monitor via an easy smartphone app. But as indoor cameras become increasingly normalized, many couples still disagree over just how “normal” it is to have something recording the domestic sphere. In the interest of security, the camera advocates are making their loved ones feel exactly the opposite.

In-home video cameras can help you keep an eye on your pets or kids—baby monitors come in sharp night vision, after all. Other camera wanters cite surveillance as a crime deterrent or a way to capture evidence if someone does break in. With the possible benefits, those who don’t want a camera in their living space often struggle to articulate their discomfort with being watched—to quote one husband, “it’s weird and makes me feel weird.”

Kylie, a high school math teacher whose husband works in the military, found herself in this exact predicament: One partner wanted indoor cameras and the other did not. A few years ago, after a theft in their home, the pair started looking into extra security measures, such as installing a safe and outdoor security cameras. But soon enough her husband, Matt, was talking about indoor cameras too. (Both names have been changed to protect their privacy.) “We talked about where those were going to be,” she says. “And for a little while, he put them up, you know, kind of wherever he put them up—he does that sort of thing.”

Kylie says that her husband’s desire for home cameras was grounded first and foremost in security, but things definitely “ramped up” when he was away on military service and feeling homesick. They offered him the ability to log into the cameras to see if she was home from work or simply to see his old couch. (Matt is not a jealous guy, she assures me.) But for Kylie, a very private person whose family jokes about the fact that she doesn’t even like talking to Alexa, something felt off. “I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it bugged me, just to be observable at any time,” she says. “I don’t need to be on camera when I go to the Halloween [candy] bucket for the 14th time on a night.” (Matt declined to speak with me.)

While Kylie understood Matt’s reasoning, she agrees that in many cases, the desire to surveil can be less clear cut—as in the case of the kitten-watching wife, Kylie says, “Either she is abnormally attached to the kittens and there’s a reason for that emotional connection … or it is being used as an excuse for some other sort of issues that she’s having. But I don’t think it’s just a simple as ‘I want to watch the kittens.’ ”

Camera wanters easily fall back on the pro-surveillance chestnut: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” But even that framing carries a whiff of threat.

Are these “innocent” demands for a camera about keeping tabs on their partner? Do they want to check when their partner gets home, or whether they are being unfaithful? Even if the impulse isn’t so fraught, it carries troubling connotations. Cameras have been known to be used to control or harass partners, with unwanted cameras just as likely tools of domestic abuse as of domestic dispute. As domestic violence and tech expert Ian Harris wrote in response to Madeline Ashby’s all-too-real Future Tense Fiction short story “Domestic Violence,” “Control can be exerted in many ways, and increasingly that is accomplished through technology.”

Even when surveillance has nothing to do with abuse or imbalanced power dynamics in a relationship, its method of implementation can push that boundary. A lot of snap-happy partners, it seems, win the argument the way I won the fight over what to name our most recent dog—just going for it. And once the camera is there, asking for it to be removed or turned off is suddenly harder than saying no. “Why now all of a sudden?” as one wife asked her husband, who never wanted a camera in the first place, when he asked to get rid of it. Some believe that the surveillance-reluctant will eventually be grateful for the cameras if something goes wrong. “Hopefully nothing bad EVER happens at your home,” one writes. “But if it does, don’t you want the bad guys to be caught? IMHO it’s worth it.”

Look, no one asked me (oh, except for all the people asking for an online adjudicator). But in the end, this comes down to basic respect between partners. Any potentially invasive in-home tech decisions ought to be a two-way one. In 2017, Molly Olmstead wrote here in Slate that her roommates were horrified when she received an Amazon Echo as a gift. Their compromise: It wouldn’t be kept in the shared spaces. Just like when getting a pet, you need the approval of the people you share a space with before introducing something that is potentially listening to their every move. With cameras, doubly so: It’s not just that the security camera might be recording your every move, it’s that it is.

Kylie and Matt were able to find a compromise they could both live with: indoor cameras that are pointed at the entrances and exits only. “We talked about … the purpose for having the cameras, and why we originally bought them, and it had to do with the theft and making sure that the house itself was secure,” she says. “And I said, ‘Well, if that’s the primary focus, then ins and outs, entrances and exits, are really what you’re needing to look at, as opposed to the adding on of all the other rooms.’ ” Matt, she adds, would still prefer that the cameras surveyed the whole house but accepted the compromise.

Kylie’s advice for those finding themselves in the same dispute? “I think it always has to come down to really backing up the source of that feeling. ‘I wanna see what’s going on.’ Well, why? What is the ‘why’ behind that?”

In-home cameras may be far more normal these days, but not wanting to be watched 24/7 is still perfectly normal too.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.