Law & Courts

Camera Phones Raise Whole New Set of Privacy Issues

By Catherine A. Carroll — February 18, 2004 6 min read
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The Montana High School Association—which oversees the state’s high school athletic, speech, and music activities—issued a strong recommendation in November that schools craft policies to prohibit the use of digital camera phones in locker rooms.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky School Boards Association plans to issue a sample policy this summer that outlines some prohibitions of camera phones in school buildings.

And in Ireland, an incident in which an image of a partially clothed schoolgirl was taken by a camera phone and transmitted to other phones has prompted serious concerns about the devices.

Whether they are reacting to a troubling incident or simply trying to prevent problems before they happen, schools are grappling with how to address the increasing use of camera phones by students. Educators are worried that students’ privacy rights will be violated by voyeuristic camera-phone users; school leaders also say students could use the devices—basically cellphones with tiny cameras—to cheat on tests.

“You want to try to stop something bad before it happens,” said Jim Haugen, the executive director of the Montana High School Association, referring to his organization’s recommendation. “It’s a common-sense issue.”

‘Evolve With It’

Camera phones, which hit the U.S. market about a year ago, have become less expensive and thus more common, making them readily available to many teenagers.

This new phenomenon comes as several states and some school districts have loosened or scrapped policies that prohibited students from carrying cellphones on school property. Those changes were spurred, in part, by concerns that such prohibitions could prevent students from getting in touch with their parents during emergencies, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But now, the photographic capabilities of some cellphones have added a new technological twist to the policy debate.

Stephen Degenaar, the principal of the 2,200-student Apple Valley High School in Apple Valley, Minn., said that probably more than 500 cellphones are on his campus on any given day. The school’s cellphone policy states, however, that the devices must be kept out of sight during the school day, and that a phone will be confiscated if a teacher or administrator spots it. The principal said the school is considering loosening some of the restrictions in a revised policy.

Even so, Mr. Degenaar said, if the school does ease its cellphone policy, there will be special qualifiers on camera phones.

“No way would we allow a picture-taking cellphone in the locker room environment,” he said. “We would immediately confiscate it.”

He added that the same would be true for restrooms and any other changing rooms in the school.

“Staying ahead of technology is virtually impossible,” said Mr. Degenaar, who plans to buy a cellphone for his own teenage daughter, but not one with a camera feature. “We just have to try to evolve with it.”

Meanwhile, officials at the 300-student Powell County High School in Montana have posted a new policy throughout the building that specifically prohibits the use of camera phones, according to Principal Rick Duncan.

Bob Whalen, the principal of Skyview High School in Billings, Mont., estimates that about one of every five teenagers in his 1,500-student school carries a cellphone regularly.

Senior Zane Merrell is one of those tech-savvy teenagers. He used to have a cellphone that his parents had purchased for him, but he recently bought a camera phone with his own money. Although he doesn’t bring the camera phone into school because cellphone use is prohibited in the building, he can use it outside the building before and after school.

He said at least 10 of his friends have camera phones. The phones range in price from $20 to $399. Some of the high end phones, for instance, have larger display screens, and can record short 10 to 15-second video clips and send them to other phones with video capabilities. The more expensive phones can also feature digital games and financial management programs.

“It’s just something new and fun to mess around with,” said Mr. Merrell, 17.

Invasion of Privacy?

Yet potential problems exist.

In a television commercial for Sprint PCS camera phones, a young woman is sitting at a counter in a diner. She takes a picture of a young man who is eating a few seats away from her. He is spilling food all over himself. She then sends the picture to the young man’s apparent girlfriend.

Humorous technological stunt or invasion of privacy?

James B. Brown, a lawyer with the employment- law firm of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh, said the privacy issue on camera phones is a two-step process.

According to Mr. Brown, a picture-taker invades someone’s privacy when he or she snaps a picture of a person. However, if the photographer deletes the picture and no one else ever sees it, the privacy issue is removed.

Problems arise, Mr. Brown said, when the image is transmitted to another person, via e-mail or directly to another camera phone, or by posting it on the Web. That’s when someone’s privacy is clearly invaded.

Depending on the type of picture and the place it is taken, other legal issues could arise, such as sexual harassment, creation of a hostile work environment, or theft of proprietary information.

For instance, Mr. Brown said, if a student takes a picture of a teacher that makes the teacher feel uncomfortable, the picture-taker could be accused of creating a hostile work environment.

Some educators believe the image a camera phone takes is not clear enough to actually photograph and transmit test answers. Mr. Brown disagrees. He said that the image is “absolutely crystal clear.”

Privacy concerns about camera phones have prompted the Maryland House of Delegates to consider a billwhich addresses school concernsthat would add such phones to the language of an existing criminal video-surveillance statute.

Mr. Brown, for one, recommends that if a school doesn’t have a cellphone policy that specifically addresses camera phones, it should adopt one soon.

“I just can’t see a legitimate reason to take a camera phone into the locker room,” he said.

‘What’s OK, What’s Not’

Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, pointed out that while there may not be valid reasons to take a camera phone into a locker room, there could be valid uses for the devices during the school day. For instance, students could use them to snap photos of educational material they see on a field trip.

Even so, the KSBA is planning to issue a “sample policy” on camera phones this summer to schools across the state.

Mr. Hughes said the new camera phones have the same legitimate uses in schools as regular cellphones. He said his organization would not want school districts to have to tell parents who have bought their children camera phones that they have to return them and purchase regular cellphones.

That’s why the sample policy will not recommend a ban on camera phones.

“Just as there are inappropriate times to use the cellphone, there will also be inappropriate times to use the camera function on a phone,” Mr. Hughes said. “You can effect limitations on technology without saying you can’t have it. We think it’s far better to say, ‘Here’s what’s OK, here’s what’s not.’”

Inappropriate use of the devices became a hot topic in Ireland in last month when the photograph of the schoolgirl was transmitted to camera phones across the country, including to a large number of students. Police are investigating the incident.

Austin Corcoran, the vice president of the Dublin-based Irish National Teachers’ Organization—which represents teachers at the primary level in the Republic of Ireland and educators at the primary and postprimary levels in Northern Ireland—said educators and parents are now taking a more critical look at the devices.

“We are embracing of technology as something that brings huge benefits,” said Mr. Corcoran, “but it also brings downsides, and we have to be aware of them.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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