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Proliferation of Camera Phones Calls Up a Wide Range of Risks Relating to the Workplace

May 26, 2005
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Related Topics: Technology and the Law, Workplace Violence, Policies and Procedures, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article, Technology
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C ellular camera phones--while popular with consumers--should ring concern among employers, some experts say.

As the market for camera phones continues to see explosive growth, and camera phone technology advances--new models are equipped with manual focus, shutter speed and aperture controls, high-resolution color displays, and can even shoot and store video clips--some lawyers and consultants say allowing the handsets in the workplace exposes companies to possible breaches of data security and employee privacy.

    By 2006, four of every five cellular phones shipped annually in the U.S. and Western Europe will feature a built-in camera, according to estimates published last year by Stamford, Connecticut-based technology consultant Gartner Inc.

    "Camera phones present a number of different risks to employers," says Brian Paul, an attorney in Chicago at the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich. While businesses that rely on trade secrets are most exposed, the threat of camera phones is not limited, he says. Whether it be client lists, product formulas or marketing strategies, most companies house some sort of proprietary information that runs the risk of being photographed. Furthermore, employee privacy may be compromised because of camera phone abuse, and could potentially lead to harassment claims, Paul said.

    Of nearly 400 human resource managers that participated in an April 2004 survey about camera phones by the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly 77 percent of companies lacked a written policy addressing the use of camera phones at work. Only about 7 percent reported already having such a policy in place, while about 15 percent said they were planning to implement such a policy within the next six months. (For cell phones in general, 40 percent have a policy.)

    Yet, acts of industrial espionage are a very real problem, costing companies globally up to $300 billion a year, says Richard Isaacs, senior VP at the Lubrinco Group, a risk management consultancy in New York. Just one such incident costs an average of $50 million in a manufacturing setting, and $500,000 in a non-manufacturing environment, Isaacs notes.

    Concern over proprietary leaks drove DaimlerChrysler Corp. to enact a workplace ban on cameras almost 35 years ago. "The nature of our business is proprietary, and there are trade secrets we have to protect," a spokesman for the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based carmaker says. About five years ago, DaimlerChrysler amended its security policy to ban camera phones. "We try to be aware of the technologies as they come along," the spokesman says, and update the employee manual accordingly. Dallas-based Texas Instruments has a written company policy prohibiting all types of recording devices on the premises, including camera phones, a spokeswoman confirms.

    Cellular service provider Nokia, meanwhile, has no restrictions governing camera phone use in its offices, according to a spokesman in White Plains, New York. "We’ve never had a problem in this area," he says, adding, "it would be very hard to outlaw the very product we’re working on making." He also notes that companies should be concerned about more than camera phones. "There are a lot of digital cameras out there that are a lot smaller than any digital camera phone," he says.

    But according to Paul, the capability to send or publicize images via the Internet immediately--then delete them--makes camera phones a bigger threat to employers than regular or digital cameras.

    "We haven’t seen a lot of cases filed yet based upon the camera phone," Paul acknowledges. Still, "if the employer has a policy in place, that limits their liability" related to potential claims of fraud as well as harassment, he says.

    According to Kathryn Terrell, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based independent human resources consultant, the possibility of harassment caused by camera phones is even more of a risk to employers than using camera phones to steal proprietary information. "In my opinion, the bigger problem with the camera phones is use by employees to impulsively take inappropriate photos," often of co-workers, Terrell says. If such photos are taken unwillingly, or are unknowingly published, companies may find themselves in court, she says.

    In a case currently being handled by Stephanie Dutchess Trudeau, an employment lawyer at Ulmer & Berne in Cleveland, a female employee is claiming, among other things, that a co-worker took inappropriate photos of her in the workplace using a camera phone. The company in question had no policy in place to govern the use of camera phones, Trudeau says.

    Taking appropriate steps to prevent abuse can limit an employer’s legal liability, according to Paul, and ensuring that the company employee manual evolves along with technology can be a simple, cost-effective way to minimize exposure to employee misconduct.

    In developing a workplace policy surrounding the use of camera phones, Paul suggests that employers take into account office culture to select an appropriate type of ban. Examples of different bans on camera phones include: a complete organization-wide ban; a ban in designated areas, such as product development facilities and restrooms; or a ban restricting camera phone use to breaks.

    Employers should consult an attorney before writing a camera phone policy and then communicate the new rules to employees through the use of e-mail, posted notices and staff meetings, Paul says.

    Ken Dulaney, VP of mobile computing at Gartner in San Jose, California, meanwhile, views any kind of camera phone ban as a shortsighted approach to a larger issue. "I think it’s unenforceable. It’s one of those simplistic things that people do in companies that never solve the problem," he says.

    "What we ought to be doing is putting sensitive things in special areas that have extreme security," and providing "better training to employees to watch for behavior that shouldn’t be going on."

From the May 23, 2005, issue of Business Insurance. Written by Rupal Parekh.

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