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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.

When a camper isn’t smiling or is on the outside of a big group shot, counselors said they know to expect a phone call from back home. Liz Young, a longtime camp director now helping oversee two camps on the coast of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, said she now fields as many concerned-parents calls in two hours as she used to get all month - mostly from parents asking about how their kids look on camera, or whether they’re being photographed enough.

“If a child’s not captured one day, that parent will be ringing: ‘Were they being left out? Are they OK? Are they in the infirmary?’ And we might just know, oh, they went to the toilet,” said Rosie Johnson, a photographer from London working this summer at a camp in the woods of Michigan.

The kids, knowing their parents, will often try to make themselves seen, racing up to her during the day to say their parents need more photos. “A lot of the girls will say, ‘A photo a day keeps your mum away,’?” she said.

Bunk1, based in New York, has signed contracts with camps who pay an undisclosed fee to start using tools including shared photo galleries and facial-recognition software, which Burns said is used on campers as young as 6 and is offered to parents free of charge.

Another company, Texas-based Waldo Photos, says it offers facial-recognition services to more than 150 summer camps in 40 states for a daily fee, paid by either the camp or parents, of about $1 or $2 per child.

“You get that hit you need as a parent … because, selfishly, as a parent, you want to see your child experiencing all of that,” Waldo founder Rodney Rice said. More than 40,000 parents have signed up.

Both services ask the parents’ permission before scanning: On Bunk1, parents upload a photo of their child to teach the system what to look for, then get regular notifications every time a photo is posted, alongside a question, “Is this your camper?”

Bunk1’s “parent engagement platform” also offers families a snail-mail alternative, Bunk Notes, that lets parents use a smartphone app to send a letter, for $1, that a camp staff member will then print out and hand-deliver to their kids. (Several parents said they send a note at least once a day.)

The facial-recognition tool is a technical godsend, Burns said, because it lets some parents zero in on the few camp photos they actually care about - while also surfacing some shots, where their kid might be in the background, that they might have otherwise missed.

Bunk1, whose developers and other employees are based across the U.S., Canada and Colombia, was bought in 2017 by a private equity-owned holding company called Togetherwork, which specializes in software for groups such as college sororities, sports camps, synagogues, dance studios and dog day care centers.

The company’s terms of service say that a camp or parent who uploads a photo automatically grants Bunk1 “the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive right and license to use, reproduce … and distribute” the content worldwide.

Bunk1’s privacy policy also says it does not “collect any information” from anyone younger than 13, though the service saves the names and photos of campers much younger than that. “We are not collecting information from campers,” he said. “We are collecting information from their parents.”

The company, Burns said, stores children’s photos securely in domestic data centers and takes families’ privacy seriously: One parent, he said, recently called to request that the company delete their account because of concerns over their digital footprint. But he declined to share details about how the data is secured, who designed the software or how it works, citing the need to protect themselves “against any potentially malicious activity.”

Common frustrations with facial-recognition software - including that it tends to work better on lighter skin - also plague Bunk1’s system, Burns said. But he declined to provide details on accuracy beyond saying there are “some bigger challenges with some skin colors versus others.”

Some privacy advocates questioned how the children’s facial images would be used, and what would happen to the data if the company were breached, hacked or sold. They also expressed concern that the corporate database of children’s faces could one day be tapped for its use in government surveillance.

Bunk1’s privacy policy says the company may release information “when appropriate to comply with the law,” while Waldo’s policy says the company may hand over information to “government or law enforcement officials or private parties” if deemed appropriate “to stop any activity that we consider illegal, unethical or legally actionable.”

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