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Monday, March 29, 2004

Phone Camera Use No Longer a Snap


Picture this: You just got a new camera phone, and you're happily taking photos of friends, relatives, your kids and your goofy new dog.

Sounds great. But consider a few darker images: Health club members in Asia sneaking phones out of gym bags to surreptitiously snap pictures in the locker room; police arresting a Washington State man for taking photos up women's skirts; and school kids from Rhode Island to California using phones to cheat on tests.

As reports like these begin to surface in the U.S. and abroad, the sunny pictures of camera phones become a bit cloudier. The incidents have sparked debate among attorneys, business owners and others about how to deal with privacy and security problems.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which represents virtually all major wireless phone makers, estimates that camera phones made up roughly 9% of the 70 million wireless phones sold in the United States last year. As the phones continue to grow in popularity, more abuses are likely to surface, and possibly, laws limiting where and when they can be used.

Question Of 'Comfort'

Bryan McMullen of Allston, Mass., loves his new camera phone and generally uses it to take pictures of family members and friends. "It's a conversation starter," he said.

But McMullen avoids using the phone in public places. "I actually don't feel comfortable taking pictures on the street, mainly for privacy reasons," he said. "I wouldn't feel comfortable with somebody snapping my picture in public."

Samuel Lewis, a Miami-based computer law professor and attorney, says many current laws on photographing people in public focus on how a picture is used after it's taken, rather than on taking the picture itself.

For example, posting the photo to a Web site or using it in an advertisement could get a phone photographer into trouble. But, he says, if he just sent a noninvasive photo taken in public to a friend in an e-mail, he probably wouldn't violate any existing law.

"The technology is really no different from using any other camera," says Lewis. "The difference is that it's much easier to sneak a camera phone into places that are not necessarily public. You run into a whole new set of problems when you start talking about places this little device can very discreetly be taken and used."

While there are a number of laws related to using cameras in public, Lewis knows of none that specifically relates to camera phones — although he suspects there will be soon.

A number of health clubs, corporations and other institutions across the country have already banned wireless phones, mainly for privacy and security reasons.

But the issue of using a camera phone in a health club locker room or taking a picture up someone's skirt would probably be covered by a well-established privacy law that applies to 'Peeping Tom' cases. So says Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jonathan Winer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

U.K. Developing Guidelines

"It prohibits someone from intruding into a person's private space to gather information," he said. "That means you don't even have to publish the picture. You just have to take their information without their permission."

Winer, who works with several international clients on privacy issues, says the United Kingdom has been developing very detailed regulatory guidelines on capturing and using someone else's image. He believes lawmakers will draw on directives like these from abroad, along with existing privacy laws in the U.S., to deal with camera phones and similar technologies.

He adds that new laws could place the burden on camera phone manufacturers, possibly prohibiting them from including certain features — like e-mail or video. Or laws could require them to equip phones with warning lights or noises signifying that a photo is being taken.

But such laws could be a mistake, says Jim Barry, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. The CEA would probably resist any legislation banning what it considers fair use of the phones, he says.

"We're certainly against any kind of government mandate on how to build products," Barry said. "We think the marketplace should decide that. But whether some products should or shouldn't be used in some places is another issue."

Michelle MacBeth of Watsonville, Calif., who just got a camera phone a few months ago, thinks the privacy and security concerns are legitimate. She once tried to secretly take pictures of the band Los Lobos when she found herself sharing a lobby with them before a concert.

"It was really dark though, and the pictures didn't come out at all," she said, explaining that her phone only takes good pictures in bright places. "It's like using a camera without a flash."

But though the pictures didn't come out, she says it was very easy to take them without the band knowing. She suspects a person would have no problem using the phone to secretly snap pictures of club members in a locker room or of documents in a business meeting.

"People are always making calls on their cell phones," she said. "No one would notice if they were taking a picture."

MacBeth is in favor of laws limiting the use of camera phones. "I don't think they should be allowed in certain areas," she said.

Jeff Cable of Saratoga, Calif., gets free promotional camera phones and other gadgets for himself and for professional athletes through his business, Pro Sport Marketing. He'd rather not see laws limit where and how the phones are used. Instead, he wishes people would just use basic common sense and consideration.

"What ever happened to just knowing right from wrong?" he said. "I know where I can take a picture. It's really no different than talking on a phone in a public place. If I have to do that, I'll step out to the front of the restaurant, and I don't yell on the phone when other people are around.

"The camera thing is similar. It's a matter of knowing what's appropriate."

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