Ask LH: Can I Disable The Cameras On Smartphones?

Ask LH: Can I Disable The Cameras On Smartphones?

Hi Lifehacker, I work in mental health nursing and we have a workplace problem. My question is: can you disable the cameras on all phones and digital media players, or just some of them?

We currently use the settings on iPhones to disable the camera via restrictions. We would like to write a generic policy for all phone cameras rather than be Apple-specific. Is this possible, or will we need specific instructions for each kind of device? Is it even possible on Android or other platforms? Thanks, Camera Configurer

Smartphone picture from Shutterstock

Dear CC,

Android is a tricky space to cover for this kind of application, largely because the diversity of devices, Android versions and even manufacturer skins can make it tricky to absolutely lock down camera behaviour. There are applications that do disable the camera on Android devices such as Disable Camera device, but that specifically notes it will only work on Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean devices. In theory, if you were using a single stock Android device and had the time, you could look at ROM hacking to disable the camera as an Android service, but that’s relatively in-depth work. My own research didn’t show up a way to disable the camera at all on Windows Phone 8 or Blackberry 10 devices short of opening them up and physically removing the camera module. By the time you go down that path, you may as well just start handing out small squares of duct tape to each employee.

It sounds to me as though it’s an issue that’s best handled with a well-broadcast workplace policy rather than a technology solution; making it clear to all employees that cameras are never to be used in the workplace. Depending on the shift/security situation, I suppose it could be possible to lock employee phones down while they’re on shift in a secure location, although obviously if you have staff on-call over a wide area that may not be a suitable solution.

Any Lifehacker readers have tips or solutions for this particularly thorny problem?

Cheers Lifehacker

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    • The new BES 10 software can manage both Android and IOS devices in addition to the usual blackberry stuff, I’ve been trialing it for a client and it’s quite powerful.

  • I agree with Alex’s suggestion that a “well-broadcast workplace policy” is the best solution. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the only viable solution. Even if the company came up with a software/hardware solution to disable the cameras, it would only be able to implement that solution on devices owned by the company. Most people have personal phones with cameras that would be unaffected by the company’s software/hardware solution, therefore no software/hardware solution can be truly effective.

    • Only if the device can do it. And OOTB, I don’t think the WP8 platform supports this.

  • If you can’t do it with software, you could always have stickers with ID numbers on them and have sign in each morning = sticker, and sign out for sticker remove?

  • I remember when the old ‘dumbphones’ started coming out with camera’s when I was in highschool, and there was all this brouhaha around them not being allowed even turned off in your pocket, etc (and this was at a school where a phone turned off in your pocket was the only way without teacher permission. Catholic et al)

    Cut to 6-7 years later and I’ve been involved in software deployments with various government agencies both here and overseas, carrying around a phone that can do much than than take a grainy photo (such as record audio surreptitiously).

    And far from being forced to having it off (except for one overseas ministry), I constantly use it to make calls back to the office, tether, etc.

    Policy is really the way to go. If your staff cannot be trusted to stop themselves from taking photo’s, they probably shouldn’t be working in an environment where it matters. Because what else might they be doing?

  • If you think mental health nursing is hard, try the Defence Security Policy: No Mobile Phones At Work.
    Phones get left in a locker, to only be used during breaks: never entering the premises.

    If you can’t live without your phone, even for the just the hours you are at work, I’d suggest you have mental health issues of your own to deal with. Give people a landline number [for emergency contacts], then get back to work.

  • The simplest way on most devices is simply to make a skeleton app that you allow to run in the background (different methods per OS), which ties up the camera.

    It’s somewhat wasteful though obviously over just disabling it, and not difficult for a user to kill (though you can make it resilient easily enough!)

  • We invented a hardware system that privilege the usage of smart-devices in restricted areas. Simply, blocks the camera using Smart-Sticker, which will reports any attempt of tampering.

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