At sleep-away camps, a sum­mer of sur­veil­lance

Fa­cial recog­ni­tion teth­ers rus­tic scenes to soft­ware and par­ents to phones

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DREW HAR­WELL

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 fa­cial­recog­ni­tion ser­vice, which alerts him when­ever one of his girls is pho­tographed en­joy­ing her 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.”

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates have raised the alarm on fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware over 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 have banned the sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy’s use by pub­lic of­fi­cials and po­lice.

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 sys

tems 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 soft­ware, al­low­ing par­ents an in­creas­ingly om­ni­scient 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 tech­nol­ogy also has 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 oneway 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 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 U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 9th Cir­cuit 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 calls from con­cerned par­ents 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 okay? 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 that 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. The ser­vices are of­fered free to par­ents.

An­other com­pany, Texas-based Waldo Pho­tos, says it of­fers fa­cial­recog­ni­tion 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 hand­de­liver 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 that they might have other­wise missed, such as those in which their child is in the back­ground.

Bunk1, whose de­vel­op­ers and other em­ploy­ees are based across the United States, 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, al­though the ser­vice saves the names and pho­tos of campers much younger than that. “We are not col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion from campers,” Burns 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 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 “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.”

Parental anx­i­ety, he said, is a nat­u­ral re­sponse to camp, es­pe­cially among par­ents send­ing their kids away for the first time. But he doubted that par­ents’ close in­volve­ment or the use of fa­cial­recog­ni­tion soft­ware had “any im­pact on the psy­chol­ogy of the child.”

“If they’re look­ing at pho­tos of their kids while they’re at camp,” Burns said, “the child doesn’t know any dif­fer­ent.”

Some pri­vacy ad­vo­cates ques­tioned how the chil­dren’s 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.”

“Sum­mer camp has tra­di­tion­ally been a place of ex­plo­ration, a place where one can grow, and a per­va­sive sur­veil­lance sys­tem seems com­pletely at odds with those pur­poses,” said Matt Ca­gle, a tech­nol­ogy and civil lib­er­ties at­tor­ney with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. What would they do, he asked, if im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials “gave them a list of chil­dren’s pho­tos and said, ‘Can you search your data­bases to see if any of the kids are at this camp?’ ”

Both com­pa­nies said they had never fielded re­quests from po­lice or gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties. Rice said the “pri­vacy hys­te­ria” was “un­founded,” and Burns said Bunk1 is not a “per­va­sive sur­veil­lance sys­tem,” adding, “If it was, hun­dreds of camps would not use it.”

Not ev­ery camp is sold on the tech­nol­ogy. Camp En­core/Coda, a sum­mer mu­sic camp in Swe­den, Maine, lets kids and par­ents ex­change sim­ple Bunk1 notes but has de­clined to use the fa­cial­recog­ni­tion fea­ture, which camp di­rec­tor Jamie Saltman calls “a lit­tle dystopian” and “way too creepy.”

But Bunk1’s soft­ware has nev­er­the­less gained a mas­sive fol­low­ing. Dayna Hardin, the pres­i­dent of Cam­pGroup, which over­sees 14 sum­mer camps across the United States and more than 6,000 kids, said the group now em­ploys 35 pho­tog­ra­phers so that “there’s pretty much noth­ing that doesn’t get pho­tographed.”

One camp, Lake of the Woods and Green­woods in ru­ral De­catur, Mich., has four pho­tog­ra­phers and a so­cial me­dia di­rec­tor on staff to help push nearly con­stant up­dates onto Bunk1, Face­book and In­sta­gram, where re­cent pho­tos of kids jump­ing into a lake or firing bows and ar­rows have net­ted hun­dreds of com­ments and “likes.” The fa­cial-recog­ni­tion sys­tem is in its sec­ond sum­mer at the camp, and roughly half of all par­ents have signed up.

Some of the kids, Hardin said, are so ac­cus­tomed to con­stant pho­tog­ra­phy that they barely no­tice the cam­era crew. It’s the par­ents, she said, who strug­gle with the dis­tance — and who are des­per­ate for the re­as­sur­ance the fa­cial-recog­ni­tion sys­tems pro­vide. She’s had par­ents tell her they’ll pull off on the side of the road the minute the pho­tos go on­line.

“They’re grow­ing up in this dig­i­tal world, and cut­ting the um­bil­i­cal cord is re­ally hard,” Hardin said — speak­ing of the grown-ups, not the kids. “To­day’s par­ents are used to get­ting six mes­sages a day about their kids since the time they were 6 months old.”

That’s made it tough on peo­ple like John­son, the 21-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher who moved from Lon­don to work at a camp as part of a sum­mer job-ex­change pro­gram. She keeps a tightly sched­uled pa­per itin­er­ary of the day’s ac­tiv­i­ties — a big group shot at the morn­ing flag cer­e­mony is more ef­fi­cient for get­ting lots of faces than, say, a few kids at arts and crafts — but she still ends up walk­ing about 13 miles a day try­ing to get ev­ery­one on cam­era.

The pho­tos she and her col­leagues up­load go on­line the next day, and post at noon on the dot — a time she knows all too well, be­cause par­ents reg­u­larly watch their phones for the no­ti­fi­ca­tions to ar­rive. The close scru­tiny from par­ents has made her that much more care­ful about the experience­s she cap­tures on cam­era. When kids frown for a photo, even if they’re jok­ing, she’ll re­mind them that their par­ents are watch­ing and wor­ry­ing — and, some­times, judg­ing the camp based on what they see.

Some of that heavy mon­i­tor­ing, camp di­rec­tors note, is fi­nan­cially mo­ti­vated: Par­ents shelling out $10,000 for an eight-week sum­mer camp tend to want to see where that money has gone. But there is a com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment, too, the di­rec­tors said: Some par­ents race to share the pho­tos on so­cial me­dia as a way to cu­rate their kids’ child­hood and of­fer vis­ual ev­i­dence that their fam­ily is worth en­vy­ing.

Hur­ley, the child psy­chother­a­pist, said the sum­mer-camp face scans and tech­nolo­gies like them can “feed this cy­cle of anx­i­ety in fam­i­lies, be­cause the par­ents never feel calm and safe . . . and that bleeds down to the kids.”

The pho­tos, Hur­ley wor­ried, could in­flame new ten­sions for kids hit­ting the age — gen­er­ally, in the pre- and early teens — when they can start to feel awk­ward about all the pho­tos their par­ents post. But they can also breed un­ease for kids ques­tion­ing how much of their emo­tions and in­ter­nal lives they’re com­fort­able shar­ing in ev­ery mo­ment, even when they’re far from home.

“Par­ents right now are con­di­tioned to re­ally worry if their kids are hav­ing fun and if they’re happy — which is ab­surd, be­cause they send them to these amaz­ing camps where they’re prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed to have fun,” she said. “This idea where you have to be happy all the time: That’s not real, and yet that’s what we’re chas­ing and what we’re look­ing for when we want all these pic­tures all the time.”

Kate Lemay, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the YMCA of Greater Bos­ton Overnight Camps, which runs two boys and girls camps in New Hamp­shire, said she ap­pre­ci­ates that the pho­tos can help give par­ents a sense of trust in where their kids are stay­ing. She worked with Bunk1 to help de­velop a Web sem­i­nar for par­ents to help them “man­age ex­pec­ta­tions” and deal with anx­i­ety around the ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing how many pho­tos they would see. Coun­selors, she said, also of­ten help kids learn to deal with home­sick­ness and other “in­stan­ta­neous emo­tions” that of­ten lead them to reach for their cell­phone.

But still, Lemay strug­gles over how much ac­cess to their kids is too much. “As much as it is a re­as­sur­ing plat­form, some days I won­der if this is some­thing we should be do­ing, or if it’s mak­ing it worse,” she said.

“There’s the con­tra­dic­tion of these re­ally old-fash­ioned sum­mer camps with no elec­tric­ity in the cab­ins, no cell­phones . . . but the par­ents can check in daily to look at the ex­pres­sions on their kids’ faces,” she added. “Part of child­hood de­vel­op­ment is: It isn’t al­ways 100 per­cent smil­ing.”

“How can our kids ever learn to be au­ton­o­mous when we’re al­ways track­ing and mon­i­tor­ing them? We want kids to em­brace new experience­s.” Katie Hur­ley, child and ado­les­cent psy­chother­a­pist


Hun­dreds of sum­mer camps have in­tro­duced fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware like the Bunk1 app, shown above. Af­ter up­load­ing a photo of their child to the app, par­ents are reg­u­larly no­ti­fied when their child ap­pears in new pho­tos posted by the camp.


Par­ents us­ing the Bunk1 app re­ceive no­ti­fi­ca­tions ask­ing “Is this your camper?” when the app de­tects their child in new pho­tos.

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