Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Phone cams raise privacy concerns


Local gym operators consider taking preventive action

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - It's common to see people at the Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA talking on their cellular phones while exercising or walking in the halls. But they could be doing more than talking.

With the innovation of phones with digital cameras, the potential for privacy violations has people here and in other Greater Cincinnati recreation facilities considering banning the technology from restroom and locker areas.

"Most people now are so used to cell phones that they don't think twice when they see them," Countryside Y president Steve Boland said. "The new technology is very small and has the capability of taking pictures without, many times, people knowing it. We want to address it before we have an incident."

Countryside's risk management committee today will discuss banning cell phone use in some areas of the 220,000-square-foot building, Boland said. The center's board of directors will vote on the issue next month.

The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, which has more than 80,000 members, is also considering cell phone restrictions for its 21 branch and program centers, according to communications director Barbara Hauser.

The Blue Ash Recreation Center is looking at it, too.

"As technology changes, these are new issues that are out there," said Chuck Funk, the city's parks and recreation director. "We definitely want to take care of the privacy of our members and users."

Camera phones were introduced in the United States last year, and are featured in television advertising campaigns by several phone services. Estimates of the current number of users range upwards of 80 million people, most in Europe and Asia, but with stepped-up marketing and decreasing prices (as little as $380), usage is increasing.

The national YMCA is recommending cell phones - or at the very least camera phones - be banned from the facilities because people could be taking secret photographs, including of children. YMCAs in central Maryland and Florida already have posted warnings about them.

It's not just YMCAs that are taking action.

The phones have been banned from the locker rooms of The Sports Club/LA, which owns nine upscale gyms in Los Angeles, New York and other cities. And in Seven Hills near Cleveland, a city councilman wants to ban camera phones from public restrooms and other city-owned areas just as a precaution.

They've also been a source of controversy in Japan, where people have taken pictures in bathroom stalls and up women's skirts, and in other Asian countries where revealing photos have been shot that are showing up on the Internet.

But the camera phones are still so new that most people haven't considered their potential misuse.

"I hadn't even thought about it," said Jennifer Rammel of Lebanon, a Countryside Y member.

Neither had Mary Murphy of Lebanon, who's at Countryside at least twice a week with her three children, ages 1 to 5 years.

"I'd like to think because of what the YMCA stands for, people wouldn't do anything like that," she said. "But that's probably naive."

Shannice Clark has worried, though. The 15-year-old freshman at Cincinnati Public Schools' Withrow University High School program said she was uncomfortable at a recent homecoming dance after someone was taking pictures of girls from the rear.

"If they had taken a picture of me I would have been mad," said Shannice, who owns a regular cell phone. "I think it can be an invasion of people's privacy, especially if they are unaware of the phone camera being around them. There's a positive side to the phones, too, but eventually the problems with them will get bigger because there will be people taking pictures of stuff that is not called for."

Many local schools, including Cincinnati Public, Mason and Lakota, already ban cell phones at school.

Legal experts say that while courts traditionally have held that people don't have an expectation of privacy in public places, secretly taken photos in settings such as bathrooms and locker rooms could result in litigation.

Boland said that should Countryside ban cell phones in restrooms and locker areas, patrons would be asked to report any rule-breakers to the staff immediately.

"The way we are dealing with this is very common sense," Boland said. "We're certainly not looking to take people's cell phones away from them. It's a warning for our members that the technology is there."

Michael D. Clark and USA Today contributed to this report.

E-mail esolvig@enquirer.com

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