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Who's watching the nanny?

Debate arises over use of surveillance technology

By Pat Burson

Knight Ridder Newspapers

To tell or not to tell?

That's the burning question for many parents when it comes to videotaping the nannies they bring into their homes to care for their children.

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For some, it's a no-brainer -- keep mum about it. They validate their decision by pointing to incidents of suspected abuse caught on tape, including a case in November 2003 involving a Long Island, N.Y., couple whose hidden camera revealed their longtime nanny slapping, kicking and attempting to smother their 10-month-old daughter.

Of course, a recent episode of the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives" showed the opposite result: Harried mom Lynette's hidden camera revealed a nanny who did her job so well -- and was so adored by the kids -- that Lynette became insecure about her own parenting.

Of nearly 4,000 moms responding to a 2003 survey conducted by Parenting magazine and America Online, 82 percent agreed they would secretly videotape their caregiver not only if they suspected their children were not receiving proper care and attention but also to protect their caregivers from false accusations of abuse. Some also said they would resort to videotaping only if they suspected abuse. Otherwise, they said, it was unethical to use cameras secretly.

While 18 percent of respondents said they objected to using hidden surveillance, some admitted they had videotaped their caregivers -- only not in secret.

The nanny cam is "one of our more sought-after products," says Mike Wilcher, owner of Spy Supply in North Richland Hills, Texas. They're especially effective, he says, now that tiny cameras can be hidden in household items -- VCRs, electrical outlets, clock radios, air purifiers -- without affecting the way those items operate. And these days, the cost is usually within reach; you can get an adequate covert camera for just a couple hundred dollars.

As video surveillance technology gets smaller, easier to conceal and less pricey, it is becoming a popular way for people to keep an eye on those who are supposed to be watching everything from their kids and homes to their pets and aging parents.

Meanwhile, experts in law, ethics, privacy and electronic surveillance are split over whether it's right or wrong to use such cameras in secret. Some nannies don't exactly welcome a camera watching their every move -- or, if one is, they want to be told about it.

Legally, the decision is up to the parents when it comes to using so-called nanny cams, says Alec Farr, an attorney in the Washington, D.C., law office of Bryan Cave LLP, who specializes in matters of privacy and technology. "It's your home. It's her workplace you are providing to her. She has no reasonable expectation of privacy in your home," he says.

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While it may be legal to secretly videotape your nanny, Harold J. Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology and an expert on personal privacy, questions it for other reasons.

"It strikes me as unethical," he says. "I would suggest that people put the shoe on the other foot. What if a camera were focused on you at work? What would your reaction be if your boss decided to record phone conversations or monitor e-mail? Wouldn't you want to know about it ahead of time?

"My advice would be to tell the nanny," he says. "I think it's a matter of respect."

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