Last year, cellphone manufacturers introduced a new piece of technology -wireless telephones that come equipped with tiny digital cameras. More than 80 million of them have been sold around the world so far and these devises are raising some questions about how to protect privacy in the digital age.
Critics of these new gadgets say there are a couple of reasons people should be concerned. First of all, cellphone cameras are small, which means the owners of these devices can secretly take pictures of things they probably shouldn't be taking pictures of.
In Japan, for example, retailers have noticed that people are using their phones to take pictures of magazine pages. Rather than buying the magazines, it seems these individuals have been photographing the articles and then going home to read them on their computers.
And here in the United States… believe or not, a few health clubs have reported problems with individuals who've been using their phones to photograph people while they're showering and changing in the locker room. Because of this, the YMCA, one of the biggest and oldest health clubs in America, recently instituted a ban on camera cellphones.
"We felt that in order to protect the privacy of our members and our guests, that it was in everyone's best interest to prohibit the use of them in our locker rooms," says Peter Hoontis, executive director of the West Side Y in New York City.
So far, private organizations are the only groups to take the step of banning cellphone cameras. But if a piece of legislation being sponsored by Ohio Representative Michael Oxley wins approval in Congress, the usage of these cameras could soon be restricted on all federal property. That would include national parks, cemeteries, even the Capitol Building.
Tim Johnson, a spokesperson for Representative Oxley, says it isn't just the size of these cameras that has lawmakers concerned. He adds they're also concerned that the digital nature of the photographs allows for the pictures to be widely disseminated.
"Congress is trying to update what we're sort of calling our old privacy laws, which were formed when people were just taking still photography, to a day when you can have not just an electronic picture taken, but put it over the internet, and suddenly you become very public to millions of people across the world," says Tim Johnson.
The legislation wouldn't completely ban cellphone cameras on federal property, but it would ban the use of these devises to take pictures of anyone in "sensitive or compromising states." It would also ban the electronic distribution of any of these pictures.
Tim Johnson says Representative Oxley and his supporters are hoping the federal legislation could serve as a model for states and municipalities. But representatives from the cellphone manufacturing industry aren't convinced the problem has gotten so out of hand that a federal law is necessary.
"We don't think there's a need for any additional controls to be placed on wireless phones at this point," says Rich Blasi, media director for AT&T Wireless. "You know, policing this in places like gyms and such, that can be done on a localized basis."
Cellphone manufacturers may not see a need, but by all indications, Congress does. The legislation that would restrict cellphone camera usage has already been passed by the Senate, and Tim Johnson says Representative Michael Oxley expects the bill to win the approval of the House before the new congressional session begins in January.