It is quite common these days for businesses to monitor and record phone calls with customers, whether it’s to ensure that orders are accurate, to review employee interactions, or for some other reason. At the same time, new technologies have made it easier than ever to eavesdrop on private communications. Unfortunately, this has resulted in some companies going too far by invading the privacy of customers. The California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) is a state law that makes it illegal for businesses to wiretap consumer communications and record you without your consent. Businesses that violate the CIPA may be subject to both criminal and civil penalties, including a lawsuit filed by any consumers whose conversations were wiretapped or recorded without permission.
To learn more about the California Invasion of Privacy Act, keep reading this blog.
What Is California’s Invasion of Privacy Law?
California has the nation’s strongest consumer protection laws, including the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, and the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL). The CCPA was enacted in 2018 to become the nation’s first state privacy law, and it strengthened protections for customer data collected by businesses online. The CIPA has a longer history, having been passed by the California State Legislature in 1967 for the purpose of more broadly protecting the privacy rights of all state residents, including consumers. Under the CIPA, it is illegal for companies to wiretap or record conversations unless all participants have consented to the recording. This applies to telephone conversations and online communications.
Although the wiretapping law was initially intended to cover calls on landline phones, the use of cellular phones has been addressed by the statute. Cal. Pen. Code sections 632.5 and 632.6 specifically prohibit the use of a recording device when a call involves a cellular phone, whether it’s two cell phones or one cell phone and one landline phone.
Websites & Session Replay Software
In addition to recording phone conversations, a lot of companies also keep records of their interactions and communications with customers who visit a company website. This becomes problematic – and possibly illegal – when the company uses session replay software to capture visitor interactions with their website. That’s because the use of this type of tracking software may constitute an unlawful intercept of the communication, as defined by California’s wiretap law.
Session replay software allows website operators to monitor how a user interacts with the website. The tool then reproduces a video recording that shows the user’s interactions, including what they typed, where they scrolled, whether they highlighted text, and how long they stayed on certain pages. When companies employ this software, the very fact that a machine is being used to intercept customer communications constitutes a violation of the CIPA.
California Penal Code Section 631: Wiretapping
California Penal Code Section 631 forbids anyone from illegally wiretapping a conversation. The law specifically prohibits the following:
- Using a machine to connect to a phone line.
- Trying to read a phone message without the consent of all the parties participating in the conversation.
- Using any information obtained through a wiretapped conversation.
- Conspiring with another person to commit a wiretapping offense.
Some states allow a call to be recorded when just one participant is aware of the wiretap and consents to it, even if the person recording the call is the one providing consent. But California is a two-party consent state, which means that everyone involved in the call or chat must agree to it being recorded. If just one party does not provide consent, then recording the conversation constitutes a violation of the CIPA and can result in both criminal and civil penalties.
Even if the person who called you or chatted with you was not located in California, you can still bring a lawsuit under the Invasion of Privacy Act as long as you were in the state at the time of the call or chat. That’s because out-of-state businesses must still comply with California laws when communicating with someone who is in the state.
California Penal Code Section 632: Eavesdropping
Section 632 of the California Penal Code addresses the crime of eavesdropping. Many times, a wiretapping case also involves eavesdropping offenses where the offending party both taps a phone line and listens in on the conversation. The main difference between the two is that eavesdropping does not necessarily involve the tapping of a phone line.
The statute defines “eavesdropping” as the use of a hidden electronic device to listen to a confidential communication. Significantly, the law is not limited to phone conversations. When someone intentionally eavesdrops on an in-person conversation, they may be subject to criminal charges and a civil suit for damages. The types of electronic devices that are often used to illegally eavesdrop include telephones, video cameras, surveillance cameras, microphones, and computers. If the device was concealed from one of the parties, it may constitute a violation of California’s eavesdropping laws.
Can You Sue for Invasion of Privacy in California?
Although the California Invasion of Privacy Act is technically a criminal statute, Cal. Pen. Code §637.2 gives victims of wiretapping and eavesdropping the ability to bring a civil suit against the person or company that illegally recorded the conversation. If you learn that someone was listening in on your private conversation without permission, you may be able to file a lawsuit to recover statutory damages.
How to Prove Invasion of Privacy Under the CIPA
To win your CIPA claim, you will need to prove that the conversation was illegally recorded in the first place. In some cases, this will be obvious because the business will reveal that they are monitoring and recording the call or chat. In other cases, consumers may learn about illegal wiretapping during the discovery process when the defendant is forced to turn over company records.
The other elements of a CIPA claim that you will need to establish at trial include:
- The defendant intentionally used an electronic device to listen in on and/or record the conversation.
- You had an expectation that the conversation would not be recorded.
- You or at least one other person on the call did not consent to having the conversation recorded.
- You suffered some kind of harm or injury as a result of your privacy rights being violated by the defendant.
The use of a cellular phone can change the burden of proof needed to win a CIPA claim. That’s because courts will typically use a strict liability standard when at least one of the participants on the call was using a cell phone. This means that the context and circumstances of the call won’t matter; the court will automatically presume that there was an expectation of privacy. Additionally, strict liability will apply to the defendant even when they did not realize that the other person on the call was using a cell phone.
What Is the Penalty for Invasion of Privacy?
The criminal penalties for violating the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) include possible jail time and significant fines. Businesses that violate the CIPA may also be exposed to civil penalties when a consumer files a lawsuit in state court.
The CIPA gives criminal prosecutors wide latitude to charge an offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the facts of the case. If a CIPA violation is charged as a misdemeanor, the defendant could be sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to pay up to $2,500 in statutory fines for each violation. If the violation is charged as a felony, the possible jail time could increase to three years. Additionally, anyone convicted of a second wiretapping offense could face more substantial fines.
The CIPA lists statutory penalties that may be imposed against companies or individuals who violate the statute. The court can order the defendant to pay $5,000 in statutory damages for each illegally recorded conversation, or three (3) times the actual economic damages you suffered because of the privacy breach. The judge in your case will have the option to choose whichever amount is greater: the statutory damages or the actual damages.
Depending on the circumstances of your case, you might also be able to file a right of publicity lawsuit. That’s because right of publicity claims and invasion of privacy claims often overlap, especially when a business attempts to profit from someone else’s image or likeness without consent.
California Invasion of Privacy Statute of Limitations
It is very important that you take immediate action and speak with a qualified consumer protection attorney as soon as you suspect that a company may have violated your privacy during a communication. That’s because the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA) requires plaintiffs to file a civil suit within one (1) year of the date on which the conversation happened. Failure to bring your case before one year has passed could result in your lawsuit being dismissed.
The statute of limitations period typically begins when the plaintiff knew about the defendant’s illegal wiretapping. But what happens when the plaintiff did not learn about the invasion of privacy violation until later? In these cases, the court usually applies a reasonable person standard, which means that the court will attempt to determine the point at which a reasonable person standing in the shoes of the plaintiff would have known about the unlawful act by the defendant. In other words, should the plaintiff have discovered the privacy violation before the statute of limitations expired?
Contact the Los Angeles Consumer Protection Lawyers at Tauler Smith LLP
If a company invaded your privacy by secretly recording a conversation without your permission, you may be eligible to file a civil suit to recover statutory damages. The first step you should take is to speak with an experienced Los Angeles consumer protection attorney at Tauler Smith LLP. We can help you decide how to best proceed with your case.