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Cell Phone Cameras Become Popular, but Controversial Trend - 2004-02-04


In the fast-changing world of consumer technology, one of the newest and hottest trends is "cellphonography," or taking photographs on your handheld wireless cellular telephone.

Like flying cars, picture phones have been the stuff of science fiction and spy movies. But the future is now for digital camera phones. More than 21 million Japanese and South Koreans - and almost two million Americans - now carry picture phones no bigger than a bar of soap that snap, store, and send instant photos to other picture phones and by e-mail to computers anywhere in the world. Some even shoot short videos.

One official at the Consumer Electronics Association calls the deluxe version of the camera phone - which combines a cell phone, Internet terminal, e-mail machine and camera - an electronic Swiss Army knife. He says camera phones are already outselling regular digital cameras.

Alan Reiter, the president of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, a consulting firm in suburban Washington, D.C., follows picture-phone trends in an online web log called Camera Phone Report. He says many U.S. newspapers and television stations now accept photos and videos of car crashes, convention exhibits - even bank robberies in progress - taken by amateurs on their camera phones.

"It's not just taking a photo of your family or friends at Disney World [amusement park]," he said. "We're seeing construction companies give camera phones to their workers. So if there's a problem at the construction site, a construction worker can take a photo, send it to a supervisor who is likely miles away [many kilometers away] and ask his opinion about it. So the supervisor doesn't have to drive over to see the problem. We're also seeing doctors and emergency personnel using camera phones to take photos of accident victims and injuries and sending those photos directly to hospital emergency teams. "

While shopping one day, Mr. Reiter saw a scarf that he thought his girlfriend might like. Instead of calling her to describe it, he zipped off a digital photograph taken on his camera phone. Mr. Reiter says expensive models allow you to store hundreds of photos in the camera phone's digital memory, for later transfer to a computer or printer.

Robert Thompson, a professor who studies popular culture at Syracuse University, says Americans had better get used to having their pictures taken.

"We are now in a world where cameras are virtually everywhere," he said. "When one steps out into public these days, one is going to have to make the assumption that at some point, if not at many points, you are going to be the star of your own little television show, whether you know it or not."

Leslie Ann Reis teaches technology and privacy law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. She says what at first was a playful use of camera phones in private places like bathrooms and locker rooms is taking a darker turn. There are now websites offering in effect, candid pornography, shot without the subject's knowledge. And camera phones are catching people who would rather not have their photographs sent across the internet, like straying husbands out with their mistresses. Little wonder, says Professor Reis, that many clubs, restaurants, and fitness centers now ban cell phones, for fear they contain cameras.

The use of this technology to photograph children, even in public places raises the specter of stalking, or pedophiles transmitting information back and forth, child pornography. And part of the problem is, our laws tend to lag behind technology. Depending on the state that you're in, there are very few criminal penalties that can attach for the misuse of this technology in ways that would make us very, very uncomfortable.

Among the most uncomfortable are concert promoters, theater managers, actors and musicians. Alex Levine, chief executive of the Internet company Upoc.com, says fans with camera phones prowl for celebrities. They treat prized photos of stars as virtual autographs. Upoc organizes more than 55,000 groups of Internet users who share common interests, from terrorism to thimble collecting, and fire off cellphone emails and photos to each other."

"Sending a text message about a celebrity, while already popular, doesn't even compare [as a thrill] with being able to snap a picture and send that out to 2,000 people's phones in real time," he said.

One day, New York public relations executive Peter Shankman was waiting in line at a fundraiser at Carnegie Hall and ran into movie star Alan Alda, who was holding a wireless camera phone.

"He said, 'What do you carry?' And I said, 'Oh, I have the LG-6100 camera phone.' And he said, 'Do you like the quality on that?' And I said, 'Well, smile! I held the phone up, and we put our heads together, and we snapped a quick picture. You know, you always talk about, 'Oh, you should have seen what I saw today.' Or, 'you should have seen this person I met,' or 'you should have seen this car wreck I saw.' You don't need to say that any more. It's simple now to shoot a quick photo and e-mail it or send it to someone else's phone and say, 'I'm standing next to [supermodel] Cindy Crawford, buying a latte [coffee drink]! Look!'"

Although taking photographs is prohibited at most concerts and plays, enthusiasts like 31-year-old Dave Donohue of Charlottesville, Virginia - who's a huge fan of the rock band Phish - can't resist sneaking in tiny camera phones to snap quick photos as souvenirs.

"They pat people down for things like cameras," he said. "But you can't do it for a cell phone [because it's so small]. And as people have more 'smart' phones that have integrated cameras, they're able to take pictures. People do a lot of it. So I know a lot of people - and I'm one of them - who, not for any commercial reason but just because we want to archive the experience, will snap a photo or two or three over the course of an evening. I think it's a fun thing for consumers to play with. I know it's a fun thing for me to play with."

But camera phones are a nightmare for government and corporate security officials. They worry that a sensitive piece of research or a trade secret like a chemical formula, written on a white board, might end up in someone's cell phone picture - innocently or otherwise. So, many companies and agencies now forbid picture phones on their premises. Richard Soloway, president of NAPCO Security Systems, which manufactures security devices, says in the old days, guards who caught someone taking a photograph simply confiscated the camera. But a camera phone's digital image can be snapped, whisked off into cyberspace, and erased before anything can be done about it.

"There's now video cameras installed around buildings," said Richard Soloway. "And you can tune into these cameras with your cellphone. If you have a restaurant, and you're away and want to see what's going on in the restaurant, you can tune in in real-time streaming video."

That's fine if it's your restaurant. But this kind of snooping by sophisticated electronic intruders can destroy a business.

Incidents of so-called digital shoplifting are also on the rise. People walk into a bookstore, for instance, open the latest fashion magazine, snap away on their picture phones, and walk out without buying the magazine.

Most photographs and videos taken by camera phones are a tad fuzzy, but fidelity is improving fast. So is the battery life of the typical picture phone. And the cost is tumbling. The cheapest model runs about $80. And experts say the day is fast approaching when camera phones, like some ordinary cell phones, will be given away to customers willing to sign long-term cellular service deals.

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