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Camera phones: Snapping at workplace privacy?

Jim Rendon

In September, Intel Corp. ran into a problem that more and more companies are bumping up against: how to regulate camera phones in the workplace.

Like most high-tech manufacturers, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip maker has offices -- like its cutting-edge research and development centers -- in which cameras are not allowed. Of course, it also has thousands of employees who love their high-tech gadgets, and these days, many of those gadgets are being sold with tiny embedded cameras. But for their employer, those cameras are an inherent security risk.

Intel decided that a camera is a camera, no matter what it is attached to. It banned handheld devices with embedded cameras from the same areas that traditional cameras are banned from. This new policy only affects a small portion of its employees, and the affected workers are already used to many other restrictions, said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

Intel's reaction was sensible, said Phillip Redman, a research vice president at the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. Organizations should develop policies for camera phones, Redman said. In general, they should only ban them from areas where cameras are already banned, he said.

Facilities such as power plants, some manufacturing facilities, and any areas that have sensitive information that could be compromised by a camera should be off limits, he said.

Jack Gold, a vice president with the Stamford, Conn.-based

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research firm Meta Group, agrees. Camera phones should be banned from those areas with sensitive information. He, however, takes the issue one step further. He feels that most businesses should ban camera phones completely.

When companies are selecting phones for their employees to order, he said, they should choose those without cameras. While some have had difficulty finding new, high-end phones that do not include cameras, large enterprises may be able to ask manufacturers to deliver phones without the cameras installed.

Gold said that when employees bring cameras into the office, there is a much greater chance that someone can invade a co-worker's privacy by snapping and distributing an inappropriate picture. Digital images are instantly available and easier to distribute than 35mm film. If camera phones proliferate, they could render a business liable for a loss of privacy, Gold said.

Redman, however, disagrees. In an average office, he said, there's no need to ban the phones. Cameras aren't completely foreign to today's workplaces, and plenty of innocuous pictures are taken at office holiday parties, he said.

"I've just never seen really great scandalous things happen in an office," Redman said.

And even though Gold takes a hard line, he said that camera phones may actually have important uses as business tools. Insurance adjusters, for example, may use the devices to take photographs of accidents, and field service staff may use wirelessly transmitted images to help them identify parts. In those instances, he said it is best to allow people to use the camera as a work tool, while ensuring that they understand the policies about use in the office.

One thing both analysts agree on is that, over time, an increasing number of devices will be equipped with phones. Either way, it's not an issue that businesses can ignore for much longer.

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