Snapping away at privacy

Concerns: Anyone a picture phone user sees can show up in a photo ready to send to others.

December 04, 2003|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Nina Sanchez thought a guy in her class was cute and wanted her cousin to check him out.

Minor problem: Cousin is in New York.

So Sanchez snapped his picture and sent it to her.

It took only a minute or two.

Sanchez, 20, of Pompano Beach, Fla., snapped the guy with a picture phone - a cell phone that captures an image that can then be sent to another picture phone or by personal computer with the Internet.

Smile! This latest techno toy might be taking your picture right now, even if you're sweating at the gym, screaming at your kids or sharing an intimate moment with your lover.

These little phones are so unobtrusive you might not even know you're being photographed. As a result, privacy questions are popping up as picture phones' popularity soars.

"Like any technology, it can be used appropriately or inappropriately," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "There's a strong potential for abuse, but we'll have to see how people use it before making a blanket judgment on whether this technology is good or bad."

The picture phone is promoted as a workhorse. Imagine real estate agents zapping photos to busy clients or city inspectors instantly documenting eyesores. Clerks can snap a robbery in progress - on camera.

But the main reason people are grabbing up picture phones is the same reason they picked up a Polaroid camera nearly a half-century ago: instant picture, instant gratification.

"It's just fun," said Sanchez, who asked permission to take the student's photo. "I take pictures of something every day."

Herbert Roach of Lauderhill, Fla., snaps 9-month-old daughter Halle daily, then sends the pictures to family and friends.

He's creative with the camera, too. Early in the football season, Roach, a high school coach, photographed players to pinpoint mistakes.

"A defensive back would say, `I am on my toes,'" he said. "And I'd say `No, you're not.' Then I'd take a picture to show him."

In two important ways, this techie toy differs from many conventional cameras: It's far-reaching and discreet. A picture phone image, available immediately, can be sent anywhere, any time, via e-mail or to another picture phone user. You can print a clear image.

"Most of us don't walk around with a camera, but we do walk around with a cell phone," said David Bentkowski, the mayor of Seven Hills, Ohio. He recently introduced legislation to ban picture phones in private areas such as bathrooms

"Suddenly, everybody is exposed to potential paparazzi," he said. "And you don't even know they're taking your picture."

For the first time since their commercial introduction four years ago, sales now outpace those of digital cameras. Around the world, people bought 25 million in the first half of this year.

Dropping prices fueled the buying spree. The phones once cost about $400. Now, with promotions, they're $100 or so. Some cameras are integrated into the phone; others are attachable.

As with regular wireless phones, users pay a monthly fee for minutes. But they also pay for a visual package. Cost varies depending on other phone features - Internet access, text messaging, even video capability.

Taking pictures doesn't ring up the bill, but sending them does. Some users pay per download, say 40 cents or so per photo. Another package charges $15 monthly for sending unlimited pictures.

Some cameras make a clicking sound when you shoot, but in a noisy, crowded world that subtle sound is no warning shout. Some are silent, so you only see someone clutching a cell phone, a common sight. And some have zoom capabilities, so someone can shoot from several feet away.

As cameras grow more popular, privacy experts expect more problems.

Kathleen Hishmeh, 31, a Boynton Beach, Fla., accountant, understands the privacy concerns, but questions trying to regulate them.

"You have cameras so small that people don't notice them either. ... So how can you regulate the phones?" she asked.

Even Bentkowski came to that conclusion. The city council tabled his legislation, but he'll see that warning signs are posted in public buildings.

But for many young fans, privacy problems can't trump the fun factor. Raised on reality TV, surveillance cameras and dorm cams, the picture phone doesn't seem invasive to them.

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