June 17, 2005

Who Sees Your Digital Prints? You Might Be Surprised ...

Greetings. The issues of commercial "photo surveillance" go very deep, and it seems likely that few customers are even aware that they exist at all.

A few days ago, I had a chat with a spokesperson from Albertson's, Inc. corporate headquarters. Albertson's owns the giant Osco / Savon drugstore chain, which does a great deal of both conventional and now digital photofinishing. I had called to investigate privacy policies related to the use of digital print self-service kiosks.

What I learned was interesting. It appears that at least as far as Albertson's is concerned, not only is it impossible for a customer to make a print that isn't inspected by their "trained photo service personnel," but digital prints are technically capable of "retroactive" inspection after customers have left the store with their prints.

It doesn't matter whether the print is from conventional film or the self-service kiosks -- if the print hasn't been passed by the store's photo person, the customer can't receive it. Albertson's insists that this is a quality-control issue. But if the "inspector" in their highly-trained opinion feels that something is amiss with the photo in terms of content, trouble can follow.

The result can be the customer not receiving prints, and/or the calling in of law enforcement -- though the spokesperson pointed out that their policy stated that the latter decision would only be made at high corporate levels. Obviously the ability to identify the customer can become an issue, especially for customers who pay with cash. I was told that Albertson's does not require photo ID or other verified ID in order to receive prints.

Even after customers leave the stores, the digital print kiosk equipment in use can store the customer photos for up to around seven days before they are deleted. This is ostensibly so that customers can return to the store to easily make additional prints from those same images. However, the store photo person has the ability to access all of those currently retained digital photos.

It's instructive to compare the issues of photofinishing with other services in our daily lives. By the same logic being applied to photo printing, the output even of conventional self-service copy machines would be subject to inspection and possible confiscation and/or reporting before users could receive their copies.

And the issues extend into the telecom world as well. Millions of people are using camera-equipped cell phones, and merrily sending images through their carriers' networks, without a thought as to the potential privacy issues involved. Even local storage of images may be problematic. In a recent case, Houston police officers were "fired" after downloading nude photos from a female DWI suspect's camera phone into one of their own PDAs.

Tiny digital cameras -- increasingly even those in cell phones -- can now create very high quality images and prints. The entire spectrum of attitudes and laws regarding photography and privacy are being stressed in ways that weren't anticipated even a relatively few years ago. We can't hold back the technology, even if we wanted to.

As a society, we need to bring these issues to the forefront of public visibility and discussion, and not let them remain hidden in corporate boardrooms -- or behind the counters at drugstores.


Posted by Lauren at June 17, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink
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