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I spy with my little eye ...something confidential

Could your company's trade secrets be child's play for industrial espionage? Remember the popular children's game I spy? The first child might call out, "I spy with my little eye -- something green," then other players would attempt to guess the secret object. The proliferation of cell phones with built-in cameras has provided a swarm of "little eyes" in today's workplace, and experts warn that unwary companies could be at risk.

Think of it this way. Would you have any qualms about a disgruntled employee or visitor roaming your halls and offices with a digital camera, snapping photos of whatever they pleased? Well, a camera phone is a digital camera. And it includes the added ability to instantly transmit photos wirelessly, all without ever leaving any tell-tale traces on your network.

Industrial espionage has always been a problem, and now it's becoming easier because camera phones are cheap and accessible to everyone.

Ken Dulaney, Gartner VP of Mobile Computing,

Photos taken with camera phones now rival lower-end digital camera quality. The current crop coming to market boasts 2-megapixel resolution, auto sensor and built-in flash. High-end models allow users to control the shutter speed, set self-timers, and even capture short video clips. Not too long ago, a device like this could only be found in James Bond's fictitious pocket.

Given the growing list of features, its understandable why even Samsung, the world's leading manufacturer of camera phones, has banned the use of its own products from its premises. If a maker of camera phones sees its own product as a credible risk, shouldn't you?

I spoke with Gartner vice president of mobile computing Ken Dulaney, co-author of the Stamford, Conn.,-based research firm's recent report, "How to deal with camera phones in the workplace." By 2006, Gartner believes that over 80 percent of US and Western Europe handset shipments will be camera-enabled.

"Industrial espionage has always been a problem," Dulaney said, "and now it's becoming easier because camera phones are cheap and accessible to everyone."

Will camera phones make industrial espionage rise dramatically? Dulaney doesn't seem to think so. Although he cautioned that camera phones should be banned on manufacturing floors and other sensitive areas, he was quick to add that "companies should resist the urge to panic and ban the use of camera phones outright."

But Dulaney isn't dismissing the danger, and neither should you. Some have suggested that a special tone be emitted, a fake shutter sound, whenever a picture is taken. But that's a stopgap solution at best, and wouldn't suffice in noisy environments or sensitive areas with isolated conditions.

Third parties are developing robust approaches that will offer the option of turning off the cameras on devices they supply. "[IT departments] could make it a requirement to have such software on any machine brought into an organization," Dulaney pointed out. "Not a perfect solution but something."

So what's the bottom line? Draconian measures have never endeared IT to employees, nor do most IT workers relish the role of Big Brother. Banning camera phones completely would be overkill, unless your entire organization necessitates this level of security. But it's essential that IT recognizes camera phones as a viable threat that must be included in any traditional camera policy.

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