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When a Picture's Worth A Thousand Worries

It’s been widely noted that even the loftiest life-improving technology or media—from the printing press to the Internet—quickly finds itself in the gutter; entrepreneurs and voyeurs immediately figure out a way to bring sex into the picture. That’s literally the truth in the case of cell phones that contain cameras; allegations have been made that such phones have been used to photograph people in compromised and compromising positions.

One fear is that voyeurs or those harboring a grudge could instantly post such photos on the Internet. If the pictures were taken on the job, the privacy invasion could result in significant liability for the company where it happened.

The case against the company would be even stronger if the company issued the phone, says Jack Gold, a vice president with the technical consultancy META Group, Inc. Companies might issue such phones to insurance adjusters to snap photos at a crash scene, for example. Yet few companies have directly addressed possible misuse with new policies, says Gold, even as the technology starts to be more widely adopted.

“It’s getting on the radar screen, though a little bit slowly,” says Michael Bertoncini, a labor lawyer at the Boston firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane. Most of the businesses that have acted by restricting the use of cell phone cameras are those with obvious concerns: health clubs and hospitals, where occupants are often undressed.

Cell phones with embedded cameras also pose a threat to proprietary information, notes Kevin Murray, an expert in corporate espionage. The phones could easily be used to photograph documents lying on desks or processes taking place on factory floors. One manufacturer that makes a camera-equipped cell phone, Samsung Electronics, has banned such phones from some of its factory floors. But Bertoncini says he has seen few companies alter their information-security policies to address the advent of these phones.

Ignoring the issue is a mistake, he says. For example, if an employee is charged with misappropriation of trade secrets by photographing documents, the court might question why the company failed to establish and enforce a clear policy banning this sort of use, says Bertoncini. “That could be a very serious avenue of attack against the company’s argument that what they have is protected in fact.”

Any policy put in place should reflect the specific needs and culture of the workplace, experts say, but it must also be perceived by courts as reasonable. An outright prohibition of these devices would certainly be appropriate in bathrooms and changing areas as well as patient-care areas in hospitals, according to Bertoncini. It might also be appropriate on factory floors.

Policies should specifically state whether such phones can be brought on company property and where they may be used, says Sally Weldin, an HR specialist with the Management Association of Illinois. Weldin also recommends modifying nondisclosure agreements to specifically bar the use of these cameras for taking unauthorized photos.