Cellphone cameras ring warning bells

It starts out innocently enough: a forgotten camera, a precious moment, and then aha! - out from one's pocket or purse comes that slick new cellphone with a camera lens. A baby's first smile, a Little Leaguer's home run, or a friend's walk down the aisle is captured. What a relief.

But as these phones become more and more popular around the world - 80 million have been sold since they were introduced early in 2002 - people have discovered that, like many forms of technology, this hip electronic gadget isn't always so cool.

In Australia, pictures taken with a camera cellphone of an imprisoned stockbroker were published in a Sydney newspaper. In England, onlookers with video mobile phones filmed a rape in the restroom of a pub. And a handful of websites now post photos taken surreptitiously with camera cellphones.

Each of these examples is different, but together they raise some of the same questions: What are the rights of the person being photographed, and should controls be put into place to limit where and how camera cellphones may be used?

For starters, say experts on technology and privacy issues, one has to consider the location of the activity and if an individual can reasonably expect to be unobserved there.

"Out in public, you are fair game," says David Bentkowski, a city councilman and lawyer in Seven Hills, Ohio. But when someone is in a private location, he adds, that's another story.

Ever since he first encountered a camera cellphone, Mr. Bentkowski has spent much time pondering and discussing its potential for infringing on privacy rights.

He has been in contact with state and federal politicians and hopes to influence legislation banning these phones in public restrooms, locker rooms, and showers. Taking pictures in places such as these, where one expects to be unobserved, is an obvious invasion of privacy, he says.

Possible limits on photo cellphones

Michael Oxley, a congressman from Ohio and a former FBI agent, is also interested in this issue. He is the author of a bill already passed by the US Senate and currently being considered in the House of Representatives regarding "video voyeurism." It includes bans against taking and disseminating pictures of people in "sensitive or compromising states" in federal areas - national parks, forests, buildings, etc.

The bill would also apply to those taking pictures with camera cellphones, says Tim Johnson, press secretary for Representative Oxley. If the bill is passed, he adds, people who take pictures of others with these phones on federal land could be fined (an amount still undecided) or sent to jail for a year.

"The bill would serve as a template for the states," says Mr. Johnson. "It's likely to pass easily since we are not trying to infringe on First Amendment rights or enforce Internet censorship. We are just trying to define the problem and take a rifle-shot approach."

Meanwhile, though, early next year isn't soon enough for some people. And bans on camera cellphone use only on federal lands don't always cut it. To avoid the problem altogether, last July the Sports Club/LA opted to ban the use of all cellphones everywhere in its nine US gyms, except for the lobbies.

"A single incident didn't trigger this decision," explains publicist Rebecca Harris. "Our security director recommended this as a protection to our members, many of whom are celebrities."

The YMCA of the USA has followed suit, says Erin Streeter, Washington spokesperson for the organization's national resource office. She is urging the 240 independent YMCA gyms nationwide to ban camera cellphones - a step already taken by the YMCA of Australia.

Are laws and rules necessary?

Some say that such bans might not be needed. "Social norms will develop, and people will not take [unsolicited] pictures because it's rude," says Douglas Thomas, associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Professor Thomas adds that the only revolutionary thing about these phones is their ability to distribute pictures on the Internet.

"There's really nothing new about taking photographs surreptitiously," he says. "For about 10 years now, any creep wanting to take 'up-skirt' kind of photography has had access to the technology. A camera that fits in the button of a shirt costs a mere $35."

High-tech phones are not all bad, adds Thomas. "If you have your phone, you've got your camera. One might ... be witness to a crime and take a picture that would be useful."

But, he adds, someone who intends to take quality pictures isn't likely to use a camera cellphone. With only one-third of a megapixel in most of these phones, the quality simply isn't there.

Next year the photos should be better

That's changing, however, says NOKIA's Keith Nowak. "Right now," he adds, "anything bigger than a 3-inch-by-5-inch photo loses its resolution and looks grainy. But next year, you're going to see these phones with triple the [number] of megapixels."

He and Marty Nee, his peer at competitor ATT, both view these phones as similar to other recording devices whose pictures could be be widely distributed if one were so inclined.

"There's always the [possibility] that people will misuse the phones," Mr. Nowak says, "but most people are buying them to document their lives, just as they would with any other camera."

"We don't see any need for additional controls placed on wireless camera phones," says Mr. Nee, adding that people must use common sense with all cameras.

But David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, disagrees. "Congress hasn't squarely addressed this issue yet, and it needs to," he says. "This is a classic example of technology outpacing the development of the law."

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