CHICAGO TRIBUNE – Thanks to camera phones, anyone can take pictures just about anywhere.
But a growing backlash against the gadgets, already banned in locker rooms, is leading some companies to turn the shutter off in the boardroom, too.
Concerned about privacy violations and the loss of sensitive data at the push of a button, some companies have barred camera phones at work. More are likely to follow.
Camera phones have already been banned in health clubs, courtrooms and–more recently–throughout Saudi Arabia and North Korea. And there are bills winding their way through Congress and a number of state legislatures, including Illinois’, that would make it illegal to take private photos of anybody without consent.
While there are no documented cases of someone being fired for taking pictures of sensitive data at work, that may be just a matter of time.
In California recently, a high school student used his camera phone to photograph and e-mail an exam to a friend, which prompted a schoolwide ban.
“You can take a picture of a legal brief or a diagram and send that off through e-mail,” said Jim Dunne, an automotive spy photographer and editor at Popular Mechanics. Although Dunne mostly works at long distances with a telephoto lens, he said a camera phone with decent resolution would be useful for his line of work.
“About three years ago, I turned onto Wacker Drive and saw the new Cadillac Escalade,” said Dunne. “They were doing an advertising shoot eight months before the car was to come out. I didn’t have a camera, so I grabbed a guy on the street who directed me to Walgreens and got a cardboard camera for $9.”
He got the picture.
At General Motors, visitors are asked to surrender cell phones in high-security research areas. Employees, on the other hand, abide by an honor system everywhere else and agree not to bring them to work.
“It is a challenge considering all the camera phones and PDAs out there,” said Jim Burke, a GM spokesman. “We have employees dealing with a lot of confidential and proprietary information. But employees know they have responsibilities to the company.”
Signs are posted at GM facilities to reinforce the policy, and random checks are conducted so there will be no possibility of misinterpretation.
Still, many question the effectiveness of banning just one device, especially considering that USB thumb drives, which can be even more damaging, are now being built into watches, pocketknives and key fobs. These storage devices can be plugged into a computer’s USB port, where it will automatically be recognized as an external drive by the operating system.
Other digital products pose a danger, too.
“What’s to stop me from taking in a voice recorder, which is potentially more damaging and stealthy since I don’t have to take it out of my pocket?” said Ken Dulaney, an author of a February report from research firm Gartner Inc. on office security. “You can’t watch everything. So where do you draw the line?”
Even MP3 players like Apple’s hard-drive-based iPod should be written into security policies, according to a Gartner bulletin released this month. High-capacity media players not only make it easy to download a large volume of data, but they can also inadvertently introduce viruses into networks.
As for guarding against camera phones, Dulaney said, one alternative would be to create secure zones where restrictions are tight and enforced by inspections.
Other analysts believe employers also need to establish clear usage guidelines and educate workers.
“What we find is most companies draft or amend [employee] contracts to include the new technology,” said Seth Traxler, an intellectual-property-rights attorney with the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis. “Prohibit employees from taking technology out of the company. It can all be done logistically.”
At Texas Instruments, which makes chipsets that are used in camera phones, employees can keep their camera phones at work as long as they do not take pictures.
“Our technology is what’s perpetuating the camera phone technology, so we don’t want to outright ban camera phones,” said Gail Chandler, a spokeswoman. “We do have information to protect. We follow the saying, ‘New tools but old rules.'”
The Air Force, understandably, has imposed the most draconian measures. It has declared camera phones “an unacceptable risk to homeland security” and has banned them from all areas that deal with classified information.
In a news release, federal officials state: “It is not just a good idea to limit their use in ‘secure rooms’ where classified information is being processed. You should watch how you use and carry those anywhere you’re dealing with sensitive or proprietary information.”
The Air Force also said that any unauthorized usage would result in confiscation of the phone and possibly federal charges against the user.
Iceberg Systems thinks it has a solution to ease workplace concerns. The U.K.-based company is working on technology named Safe Haven that can turn the camera feature off on all phones within designated safe areas. The only catch is that the phones need special software for Safe Haven to work, which could make the system a tough sell.
But unlike jamming systems that are used in Japan, Safe Haven does still allow for calls.
Another solution is legislation that requires camera phones to emit an audible noise or flash when taking pictures. South Korea already requires manufacturers to include this feature in new phones, though existing phones are exempt from the rule.
“There is a media frenzy describing how technology is going to open up a legal Pandora’s box. I don’t think that will happen,” said Traxler. “Companies just have to be careful not to overreact and to distinguish between banning devices and prohibiting uses.
“This technology can be useful.”
– – –
More risky devices
Camera phones are not the only digital devices that pose challenges. Others include:
– USB thumb drives: These small storage devices can be plugged into a computer’s USB port to easily transport data.
– Voice recorders: These small digital recorders can be easily hidden. A speaker might never know his words were recorded.
– MP3 players: Hard-drive-based media players make it easy to download large volumes of data. They can also introduce viruses into networks.