Summer camps use facial recognition so parents can watch from home
When David Hiller’s two daughters checked into Camp Echo, a bucolic sleep-away camp in upstate New York, they relinquished their cellphones for seven idyllic weeks away from their digital lives.
But not Hiller: His phone rings ?10 times a day with notifications from the summer camp’s facial-recognition service, which alerts him whenever one of his girls is photographed enjoying their newfound independence, going water-skiing or making a new friend.
His daughters don’t really know about the facial-recognition part, he said. But for him and his wife, it’s quickly become a cherished summer pastime, alerting them instantly when the camp uploads its for-parents haul of more than 1,000 photos a day - many of which they end up looking through, just in case.
“I love it. I wish I was with them,” he said. “But I at least feel like I know what they’re doing.”
Facial-recognition software has raised alarms with privacy advocates for its ability to quickly identify people from a distance without their knowledge or consent - a power used increasingly by police and federal investigators to track down suspects or witnesses to a crime. San Francisco and other cities banned the surveillance technology’s use by public officials and police earlier this year.
But while that debate rages, the technology has quietly become an accepted, widespread and even celebrated part of Americans’ everyday lives. Used to automatically tag photos on Facebook and unlock people’s iPhones, the systems have fueled a cottage industry of companies offering to secure school entryways, unlock office doors and identify people at public events.
Now hundreds of summer camps across the United States have tethered their rustic lakefronts to facial-recognition machines, allowing parents an increasingly exhaustive view into their kids’ home away from home.
The technology has shoved one of childhood’s most traditional rites of passage into the Internet age, offering parents a subtle means of digitally surveilling their kids’ blissful weeks of disconnect.
The face-scanning photos also have sparked an existential tension at many camps: How do you give kids a safe place to develop their identity and independence, while also offering the constant monitoring that modern parents increasingly demand?
The companies selling the facial-recognition access advertise it as an easy solution to separation anxiety for always-on parents eager to capture every childhood memory, even when those memories don’t include them. One company, Bunk1, said more than 160,000 parents use its software every summer.
“It’s all about building this one-way window into the camper’s experience: The parent gets to see in, but the camper’s not distracted from what’s going on,” said Bunk1 president Rob Burns, a former camp counselor himself. “These are parents who are involved in everything their kid does, and that doesn’t go away when the kid is at camp.”
But some counselors argue that summer camp is one of the few places left in the world where children are expected to unplug - a cocoon for kids to develop real friendships, learn about themselves and get a first glimpse of the freedom and self-confidence they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. They worry kids will be robbed of that experience if they know it’s also being transmitted to family hundreds of miles away.
“How can our kids ever learn to be autonomous when we’re always tracking and monitoring them?” said Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist. “We want kids to embrace new experiences: to be great people, expand their social circles and take healthy risks. And we tamp down on them when we’re always over their shoulders, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be watching.’ ”
No national law regulates facial-recognition software. But Federal Trade Commission regulators said last month that they were considering updates to the country’s online child-privacy rules that would designate kids’ faces, among other biometric data, as “personal information” protected under federal law. On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Facebook users can sue the company for its use of facial recognition technology to identify people in photos without their consent.
Most camp directors said they appreciate that the photos can bring peace of mind to lonely parents worried about their kids’ first faraway solo trip. But the photos can also end up perpetuating a cycle of parental anxiety: The more photos the camp posts, the more the parents seem to want - and the more questions they’ll ask about their kids.