New Phones Raise Privacy Fears

Illustration: Joe Zeff
You've just flipped the bird at a driver who splashed you with mud. A rude moment soon forgotten by anyone who saw it, right? Maybe not, if one of those witnesses has a cell phone with a digital camera.

Long a staple overseas, "cam phones" arrived here in 2002, promising sleek and cheap--under $100--fun with a voyeuristic twist. And they're taking off: 7 million of 72 million cell phones shipped in the U.S. have cameras; by 2007, 51 million out of over 110 million will have them, predicts research firm IDC.

The same size as regular cell phones, cam phones can snap photos while users appear to make calls. Candid shots can be e-mailed to friends or sent to sites that have automated "moblogging" (mobile blogging) such as Buzznet.com, Fotolog.net, and Textamerica.com, and there viewed worldwide in seconds. That means every faux pas, and even more private moments (in locker rooms or store dressing areas, say), can become fodder for public consumption.

Privacy Violation or Harmless Fun?

Gary Dann had no plans to become a poster child for privacy battles. However, after he used his cam phone to capture a fellow shopper yelling at a cashier and posted the snap on the Net, the New York Times called to ask if he thought what he did was wrong.

Dann, who has since been interviewed by other media, says he did not invade anyone's privacy. If a person acts like a jerk in public, "what's the difference if you have a camera phone or a regular camera to take a picture?"

For now, the law agrees. By going out in public, people surrender some privacy; a cam phone's immediacy alone does not violate privacy laws, says Daniel Solove, a law professor specializing in privacy law. So users are unlikely to be sued for taking shots like Dann's. But there are limits.

Some courts recognize an invasion of privacy if one's reputation is hurt or a photo causes severe embarrassment, says Solove, but such shots must be very offensive and not legitimate news--someone in an adult bookstore, for example.

Other cam phone uses are clearly illegal. In Japan, people have been arrested for taking photos up women's skirts (which is also illegal in parts of the U.S.), and shopkeepers are cracking down on digital shoplifting--photographing pages from books and magazines without paying for them.

Chicago is now considering laws to ban cam phones from certain places, such as locker rooms. If serious problems arise, other cities may also.

For now, most rules are ad hoc. Government offices (particularly courtrooms), some corporations, and health clubs like 24-Hour Fitness have instituted their own bans, while moblogging communities self-police, with owners responding to user complaints if something extreme shows up.

Eventually, cam phones may be automatically disabled when owners enter sensitive places, like hospitals or banks. Iceberg Systems' Safe Haven, a hardware/software product due late in 2004, can do just that, if cell phone makers and concerned companies use it.

Real Benefits

Not surprisingly, cam phone carriers prefer to focus on the devices' benefits, such as their crime-fighting potential: One user's shot led to the arrest of a suspected pedophile last summer, for example.

At Textamerica.com, cam phone users have become reporters, says founder Chris Hoar. In October his site received numerous shots of California's wildfires that the traditional media missed.

BBC Online has used cam phones to cover news events also. Professional use should grow, especially as quality rises: Carriers have 1.1-megapixel units now, and this fall a 2-megapixel Sharp will ship.

No matter what camera is used, it's never good form "to take anyone's picture without his or her knowledge or permission," says Dan Wilinsky, Sprint's director of media relations. (Sprint offers six cam phones, and its ads show people captured at unflattering moments; Wilinsky says the people shown in the ads know they're being photographed.)

Today, however, discretion is left to individual judgment.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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