The Current

Some summer camps are using facial-recognition tech to give parents 'a glimpse of life at camp'

Some summer camps are partnering with companies like Bunk1 and Waldo Photos, which use facial recognition, to offer parents a steady stream of photos of their children sent directly to their phones. Not everyone is sold on the idea, however.

Camp in Ontario's Muskoka region using facial-recognition service for the 1st time

Part of a promotional picture for Bunk1's mobile app service. The company uses facial recognition technology to tag kids in camp photos, then notifies parents. (Bunk1/Submitted by Robert Burns)

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Some summer sleepaway camps are using new technology to provide parents a stream of photos of their children while they're away.

They're partnering with companies like Texas-based Waldo Photos or New York-based Bunk1, which use facial recognition to tag every photo posted by participating camps and notify parents when it includes their child.

To some parents, the technology is a digital salve during what may be the first time they've spent weeks or months without their kids at home. Others caution that it brings unintended security concerns, and that it may run counter to the idea that summer camp allows kids to unplug and have fun away from their parents' scrutiny.

Some camps hire full-time photographers to take pictures of campers' activities, which the camps then share in private groups or Facebook and Instagram.

Parents can now send a photo of their child to services like Bunk1 or Waldo via a website or mobile app. The facial recognition then identifies that face in any of the camp's photos.

Bunk1 president Robert Burns described his company's service to The Current's guest host Duncan McCue as "a one-way window into that camper's experience" for parents, helping them avoid scrolling through potentially hundreds of photos to find the handful they're looking for.

Services like Bunk1 and Waldo offer parents an easier way to find photos of their children while they're away at summer camp. (The Associated Press)

According to the Washington Post, Waldo's facial recognition service is offered to more than 150 camps in states across the U.S., with either parents or the camp paying a daily per-child fee. Bunk1 is available in over 500 camps in the U.S. and Canada, with just under 100 of those in Canada, Robert Burns, the company's president, told CBC Radio

Bunk1's tagging service is free, Burns said, but camps may offer packages with additional services, like exchanging digital notes and newsletters.

'A glimpse of life at camp for parents'

This summer, YMCA Camp Pine Crest in Ontario's Muskoka region partnered with Waldo for the first time.

"There's no pressure for parents and campers to participate, so it's up to individual preferences," Coel Balmer, general manager of the camp, said in a statement.

"The choice always remains with parents."

Pine Crest Camp posts photos once a day, "so it's really a glimpse of life at camp for parents, and not real-time viewing," Balmer added.

Promotional photos of Bunk1's mobile app service. (Bunk1/Submitted by Robert Burns)

The camp hasn't yet committed to using it in the future, as this year's summer season is still underway.

Toronto-area parent Alice Kent decided not to use the service provided by Waldo.

"I would much rather the idea that it's a bit of a break for everyone and they go to nature, and it's a break from technology. And this just doesn't fit with that sort of ideology." 

She feels there are still too many unanswered questions about facial recognition to sign up.

"Who has access to it? Where will it be used down the road? Who sees it, who doesn't? That's just not clear." 

Christopher Parsons is a senior research associate at the University of Toronto Citizen Lab. (Riley Stewart/Munk School of Global Affairs)

Privacy concerns

Christopher Parsons, senior research associate at the University of Toronto Citizen Lab, said the data that goes into the system that allows parents to see their kids could theoretically be used "to build algorithms to improve the way that facial recognition works."

"And that could be used for all sorts of purposes that are deeply concerning, such as tracking protesters, monitoring minorities, or other socially undesirable purposes."

Burns agreed that recent high-profile data breaches like the Cambridge Analytica scandal raise "very legitimate concerns" about the use of personal data, but he said that incidents like these come from companies "that really don't have their consumers best interests in mind."

At his company, facial recognition is only applied to photos of "active campers," he said, adding that all photos, camper profiles and related metadata are deleted at the end of the summer season. Users can request their profiles be deleted "at any time" as well.

"The sole reason for this facial recognition is to enhance the parent experience. That's it," he said.

Waldo does not automatically delete user information unless it's requested, said CEO Rodney Rice.

"They [clients] rely on us to host their memories and we take that very seriously in terms of security of their photos," he said in an email.

It's how I get my, you know, two minutes of, 'OK, she's safe, she's calm, she's happy.- Naomi Levinson, parent

Both Bunk1 and Waldo's terms of service agreements state that people who agree to use the product allow the companies "royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable" right to use and distribute content uploaded to their sites.

Burns said that in Bunk1's case, the licence allows them to distribute the photos to parents worldwide, and allows them to buy merchandise like prints and mugs emblazoned with their photos. 

'Cycle of anxiety' for parents

But child and adolescent psychotherapist Katie Hurley said the constant stream of photos can feed into a "cycle of anxiety" where parents scrutinize every detail to determine whether their kids are having a good time.

"Nobody's happy every second of the day. But we're kind of looking for these Instagram-perfect images."

"And then when they can't come in as anything less than perfect, we wonder: 'Well, what's wrong, and why aren't you taking care of my child?'"

Many camps hire full-time photographers to take pictures, which are then shared in private groups for parents or Facebook and Instagram. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Toronto parent Naomi Levinson said Photoenroll, a facial-recognition service used by her daughter's summer camp in the U.S., helps her sift through the hundreds of photos the camp already posts on its Facebook page.

"It's how I get my, you know, two minutes of, 'OK, she's safe, she's calm, she's happy,'" she said.

She isn't "creeped out" by the facial recognition technology, either.

"It's just like thumbprints. I mean, I guess there was a time people were concerned about thumbprints being an invasion of privacy."

Levinson hasn't talked to her daughter about using Photoenroll.

"She might say it's creepy, but no more creepy than me studying 120 pics daily" on Facebook already, she said.

Building trust, or eroding it?

According to Hurley, the constant connection these services afford parents may erode trust in camp counsellors, teachers and coaches.

"The whole point of these camps is to help kids build autonomy, and to send them out there and say, 'Hey, I know you're capable of making friends and, you know, having relationships with adults other than me," she said.

Burns offered that they can help build trust between parents and camp staff, rather than undermine it.

At the end of the day, camp is still a business.- Robert Burns, Bunk1

"When a child goes to camp for the first time, both the child and the parent are taking a huge step outside of their comfort zone, and being able to see photos actually helps parents ease their anxiety."

Camp Pine Crest only offers Waldo's photo service, not letter or note-sharing like those offered by Bunk1.

"There's no communication between parents and children on the platform, so campers still build independence," said Balmer.

Burns also noted that photos of happy children at summer camp are critical for marketing and enrolment retention rates.

"At the end of the day, camp is still a business," he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Idella Sturino, Allie Jaynes and Jessica Linzey.