ASHEVILLE, N.C. – More than 100 summer camps are using facial recognition technology to help parents catch a glimpse of their kids when they’re away at camp, a convenience that also raises privacy concerns over the increasing reach of surveillance in society.
Venture capital-backed Waldo Photos has been selling the service to identify specific children in the flood of photos provided daily to parents by many sleep-away camps. Camps working with the Austin, Texas-based company give parents a private code to sign up. Parents then upload a headshot or selfie of their child to Waldo's system.
When the camp uploads photos taken during activities to its website, Waldo’s facial recognition software scans for matches in the parent-provided headshots. Once it finds a match, the Waldo system (as in “Where’s Waldo?”) then automatically texts the photos to the child’s parents.
The service has been embraced by parents who have tried it. But similar technology has raised alarms among privacy watchdogs who worry police could leverage photo recognition and increasingly cheap cloud computing power to tap into huge databases of photos, such as drivers' licenses, then scan and monitor crowds of people, stifling freedom of movement.
Microsoft's president late last week argued the danger associated with this growing field was so severe the government should regulate it. Facebook is the target of a class-action lawsuit in California over its use of its facial recognition technology to tag photos. The American Civil Liberties Union and some investors want Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition technology to police departments.
“As the cost of storage and computing decreases, it’s becoming easier for companies to rush into using facial recognition software,” said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “But before these technologies are deployed, there needs to be a discussion about whether this type of tech is necessary at all and how users’ privacy is protected.”
For those who haven’t attended or sent a child to summer camp recently, the days of writing letters are long gone. Instead, most camps have staff photographers who roam about taking hundreds of photos of campers as they go about their activities. Those photos are typically posted on the camp’s website or Facebook page once a day.
Parents must then click through images of potentially hundreds of children swimming, canoeing, s’more making and lanyard tying in order to spot the one or two of their child. .
In Tuxedo, North Carolina, Falling Creek Camp posts between 600 and 800 photos of campers each day, associate director Frank Tindall said. The Waldo service has been popular with families who only want to see a few of their own campers.
“Parents seem amazed that the software can pick their child out of a crowd,” he said.
Reid Wittliff has sent his 16-year-old son to Camp Rockmont in North Carolina for several years now. He says Waldo saved hours of his time.
“All the camps have photographers, and you can go to the camp websites to see them, but there are often hundreds or thousands to go through. You’re desperate to see your child – but there are just so many pictures to sort through.”
Waldo CEO Rodney Rice said his company is aware of privacy concerns. The program is entirely opt-in – if a family doesn’t upload a photo of their child, Waldo doesn’t search for them. And before they do, families sign a detailed permission statement. Waldo uses a two-step verification system so only campers’ families have access to the photos.
There’s also a protective feature for families for whom there are security concerns about having photos of their children made public. Their photos can be automatically matched, extracted and removed from the database.
“If you have kids whose dad is a DEA agent, or who are in a custody issue, we’re able to remove their photos,” Rice said.
Camps also get analytic software that assesses how many times campers are being photographed, which lets the photographers make sure they get shots of every child attending camp and don’t miss anyone.
There are few laws that govern use of facial recognition technology, so it's up to the individual company – and the user – to set and ensure limits on who has access to this personally identifiable data.
Waldo’s system is currently in use at more than 100 camps in 33 states and is expanding into schools and youth sports teams. The service keeps a child’s image until the account is deleted, so if a child’s camp, school and soccer team were all “Waldo-fied” as Rice calls it, the parents could quickly and easily gather all the photos of their child. If a parent doesn't want the company to retain the image beyond the summer, for instance, they can go to site and delete their account.
The service costs between $1 and $2 per day of camp for families that choose to use it. Those that don't can still access all the camp's photos, they just have to click through them on their own.
Rice said the company “definitely would require a warrant” to allow law enforcement to access its photo files but has never been asked to.
With this service, parents are faced with the now familiar trade-off of the high-tech age: Do they worry about future risks of such technology or set them aside for the practical benefits today?
Carla Brown, the parent of a 14-year-old camper at Camp Greystone in North Carolina, loves seeing what her daughter is doing at any point during the day. Privacy concerns over the facial recognition software having her daughter’s face on record were not a worry for her and her family, she said.
“It just wasn’t,” she said. “Maybe it should be, but I think there’s so much out there for parents to worry about and this just wasn’t a large issue or priority for me.”
Her daughter wasn’t concerned either – she was the one who set up their family’s Waldo account and downloaded the app on her mother’s phone.
Weise reported from San Francisco for USA TODAY. Horak reported from Asheville, North Carolina, for the Citizen-Times.