December 17, 2003
Cell Phone Cameras And Personal Privacy

Real life is increasingly beginning to resemble the science fiction fantasy world of David Brin's novel Earth where he portrayed a future world where old folks video recorded everything happening around them in order to protect them from crimnals. But in the real world equivalent phone cameras are being used to surreptitiously make nude photographs and otherwise satisfy the desires of voyeurs.

The phones, with their discreet lens, tiny size and ability to immediately transmit images onto the Internet or other cell phones, are a voyeur's dream.

The phones first appeared on the market in early 2001, and for the last several months, media reports out of Asia have called attention to incidents such as nude photographs of unsuspecting victims turning up on the Internet.

As governments rush to pass laws restricting the usage of cell phone cameras prosecutions under the new laws are beginning to take place. Jack Le Vu, 20, of Sammamish Washington state, has been charged with pursuing his panty fetish by taking pictures up a woman's skirt while crouched down at a supermarket shelf.

A witness told investigators Mr. Vu pretended to scan the shelves July 10 as he followed a 26-year-old woman in a supermarket, crouched down with his cellphone extended beneath her skirt and then stood, punched a few buttons on the phone and looked at the screen.

Vu may be facing up to 5 years of jail time.

Charged with voyeurism, a felony under state law, Vu pleaded not guilty Monday in what officials believe is the first case of its kind in King County.

Even if the vast bulk of the populace are willing to obey laws restricting the use of camera phones will the courts in the United States uphold the laws?

Last spring, Hawaii passed legislation outlawing "upskirt" snapshots and video, but a First Amendment expert says such laws may be unconstitutional, according to the newspaper article.

That position has been supported by the Washington state Supreme Court, which last year overturned the convictions of two men who, in separate incidents, took "upskirt" photos with plans to sell them on the Internet.

Any legal experts reading this who care to comment?

Even if laws restricting cell phone camera usage are more widely passed and upheld by courts the voyeuristic applications of these devices seem fated to increase dramatically.

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 fight to protect privacy is seen by some as a losing battle.

"The evolution, the penetration, the spread of digital capture capabilities in phones is going to be so fast, so wide that it might be a losing battle ultimately," said analyst Alex Slawsby of IDC, a leading technology industry analysis firm.

Count me in the ranks of those who think privacy will erode regardless of what governments do about it.

Obviously digital cameras already allow pictures to be taken fairly easily for later download into a computer and posting to the internet. So what do mobile camera phones bring to the table? First of all, they offer greater ease of concealment. Most cameras are bulkier and easier to spot in use. Also, phones offer the ability to immediately send a picture. The result is that more people will use them to take more pictures to send to other people or to post on the internet.

One factor driving the trend toward posting camera cell phone pictures to the internet is the development of services that automate the process.

And textamerica figures to cash in on this latest hotbed of digital technology.

The Rancho Santa Fe startup offers free moblog hosting to users around the world, and last month initiated a moblog where San Diegans could post photos of the wildfires, often taken before any firefighters or news media were on scene. (The textamerica service is free, but the user is charged by the carrier for sending the image.)

Camera phones are also turning out to be useful for the apprehension of criminals.

A 15-year-old boy foiled an apparent abduction attempt when he pulled out his cell phone camera and snapped photos of a man trying to lure him into a car, police said.

The teen also photographed the vehicle's license plate and gave the evidence to police, who arrested a suspect the next day.

An increasing portion of all the places we go to will have video devices recording whatever transpires. People will install them for security in their homes just as businesses and governments install them in offices, stores, busses, taxis, and other locations. Cell phone cameras are part of a much larger trend.

Many local governments in the United States are moving to restrict the use of cell phone cameras even as the quality of the camera pictures steadily improves.

Trying to distinguish between a camera phone and any other cellphone has also complicated matters. The Elk Grove Park District in suburban Chicago enacted a ban in November that covered the possession of any cellphone - not just camera phones - in park-owned restrooms, locker rooms and showers.

"There is no reason to have a cellphone while you're changing and showering," said Ron Nunes, one of the park district's commissioners. "I'd rather protect the children and the public more than someone who wants to call home and see what's for dinner." Fresh in the town's memory was a 2001 incident in which a man used a fiber-optic camera to secretly take pictures of children in a park shower.


Alex Slawsby, an analyst with IDC, said that by next year the typical camera phone sold in the United States would have a resolution of at least one megapixel, about three times the current average - doing wonders, no doubt, for the rendering of sloppy restaurant patrons.

South Korea's government is requiring that cell phones beep when a picture is taken.

More likely to gain prevalence are camera phones that make some kind of noise to alert bystanders of the possibility that their photo is being taken. In November, the South Korean government ordered manufacturers to install beeping sounds of at least 65 decibels on camera phones made and sold there, after officials received a flood of complaints about camera phone-wielding peeping toms.

In the future digital cameras will get smaller, cheaper, easier to conceal, higher resolution, have higher storage capacity, and will be integrated with electronics to allow smart software to control when something of interest is seen in order to trigger when a picture will be recorded. Wireless network bandwidth will increase by leaps and bounds. Technological gimmicks like the South Korean government beeping cell phone requirement will at best slow the rate at which surreptitious picture taking spreads.

There is a new fad in web logging called the mobile weblog or moblog. A moblog is a web log which displays pictures taken with cell ohone cameras. See, for example the Gary Dann photojournal as well as Neutral Zone, Furry Felines!, Wallace, the pug, and countless others. I think "moblog" is a poorly formulated term. It sounds too much like "mob log" which might have something to do with the use of electronic communications to organize spontaneous mobs (which itself could easily spawn a type of photo web log to record strange things that mobs might be organized to do).

In a way what is happening is that the invasion of celebrity privacy by paparazzi photographers and video camera operators is being extended to include the invasion of privacy of non-celebrities as well. People who used to expect that their relative anonymity would allow them to conduct their daily activities free from surveillance and recording by others are at greater risk of being photographed. But there is a big rate-limiting factor in all this: there are not enough people to view all the pictures. Besides, most of the pictures are pretty boring anyhow.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 December 17 11:03 AM  Surveillance Society

dragoon said at December 17, 2003 2:41 PM:

Japan's had a problem with cellphone voyeurism for a while. They went with the same fix as South Korea, but now there's underground shops that will disable the photo noise for a fee.

Al said at December 17, 2003 5:38 PM:

Brin wrote a whole book, The Transparent Society, that was on these themes. Non-fiction even.

Rick Goodall said at January 4, 2004 6:17 AM:

I was recently chastised for taking a picture of a Postal Employee that worked for who had deviated form his route to enter a bank.
Did I violate any laws?
I live in Pennsylvania

Nick said at January 25, 2005 1:33 PM:

umm you dont need to get your phone hacked to turn the picture sound off all i have to do is put it in silent or just select "no sound"

Lastik said at September 16, 2007 12:33 AM:

Well, even if you put your phone to silent, it will have the 65db sound of a picture taken

Diana said at June 16, 2009 5:05 AM:

I have a question for anyone who might know the answer. If someone sends you naked pictures of themselves through picture mail are you allowed to do what you want with the pictures? I cannot see how privacy laws apply if they themselves sent the pictures but I don't know for sure. Any help would be appreciated.

steph said at April 5, 2010 4:08 PM:

well no since you didnt take them but it would be wrong to post them

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