Some gyms ban camera phones

Ain't technology grand? Not only can that guy on the stationary bike next to yours at the gym chatter away on his cell phone; now he can surreptitiously photograph you at the same time. The potential for mischief from camera-equipped cell phones is making the devices the targets of concern by gym managers anxious about their responsibilities to members.

The Sports Club/LA on 22nd Street in Washington forbids using cell phones of any kind in the locker rooms "because of the new technology," specifically those built-in cameras, said spokeswoman Carrie Foster. No incident sparked the ban, she said, just precaution. "We have our fair share of politicians and high-profile Washingtonians . . . . and privacy is our No. 1 priority," Foster said.

Celebrity-laden clubs in Los Angeles have also nixed camera phones. Camera-equipped cell phones have been banned at all 300 clubs in the 24 Hour Fitness chain nationwide. Cameras are not allowed inside those clubs without written permission, and "the new camera-cell phone combinations are no exception to this rule," said spokeswoman Shannon May. The rule appears on signs posted in every club, she said.

Thoughts of locker room photos showing up on the Internet send a shudder through most anyone who frequents a fitness club. But that, and more, apparently has happened elsewhere and has led to the banning of camera phones at fitness clubs in Hong Kong and at bathhouses in Japan, according to reports on The Web site has reported that camera-phone photos taken of naked women in a public sauna in South Korea have shown up on the Internet and that police have arrested people in Japan for using camera phones to take pictures up the skirts of unsuspecting women at train stations.

"This whole thing is really new to the United States," said Shawn Lavin, marketing director for the YMCA of Central Maryland, whose eight facilities recently posted warnings in locker rooms and around swimming pools about stealth photographers, "but it's become an epidemic in other parts of the world -- the U.K., the Orient, Australia." And when Americans hear about it, he said, "they're rather frightened that there are people out there who would use this technology in not-so-flattering ways."

For now, you might be able to do it without fear of major legal repercussions, according to two experts on law and privacy, who say they're aware of no law that would turn surreptitious locker room photography into a criminal act.

"Obviously there should be limitations," said Wayne Madsen, a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, but the problem now is that "technology is outpacing by light years the legislation." A camera-phone victim could file a civil suit, he said, "but criminal action would be hard right now because of the lack of any well-defined legislation that deals with this technology."

Nonetheless, civil suits in such cases may be inevitable, predicted Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Law and the Public's Health. Locker room photography "is an outrageous violation of privacy because people believe themselves to be in a private and intimate setting and in a very compromised and vulnerable position," Gostin said. And the photographer isn't the only party that could be sued, he said. Not only could victims argue that health clubs have a duty to protect their members' privacy, but that "violation of their privacy was foreseeable if fitness clubs knew about these camera phones, and knew about their use, and knew that other clubs were already banning them. If you're walking on the street or are in a public place, I think that you implicitly subject yourself to some kind of surveillance," Gostin explained. "But if you're in a private club, particularly in a locker room, there's a heightened expectation of privacy."

Madsen says it probably will take some type of legal action for laws to catch up to the technology. "The minute there's a complaint or a lawsuit filed against one of the gymnasiums, then we'll see a reaction by the policymakers," he said -- unless, he ventured, the presence of a camera phone at some Congress member's club prompts quicker action. "This would be the type of thing that would get their attention," Madsen said.

(Written by Linda Searing and published in the 24 September 2003 issue of The Washington Post.)

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