Monday, December 1, 2003

Camera phones: privacy nightmare or creative boon?


By Ian McNairn

After getting my older daughter a new phone for Christmas, with a camera function that all the newer phones seem to be including, I began taking a lively interest in the debate that is beginning to rage. Are camera phones a security liability and privacy intrusion or simply another giant societal stride that convergent and disruptive technology brings? Globally, there are estimates of 80 million camera phones sold by year-end (that's 2003, folks!), and one billion by the end of 2005. Enough to change things fundamentally.

An article on (at,39024665,39117381,00.htm) suggests that corporations risk budding James Bonds or industrial spies being able to much more easily, and essentially undetected, capture images that can compromise the operations of any organisation. As long as I can remember there have been "No cameras allowed in this Lab/Site" in the large IT company I work for...for obvious reasons.

In reality, that has been very hard to police, and now it becomes close to impossible. What do you do with every visitor? "Please hand over your mobile phone sir" or "Madam, we need to stick this security strip over your Phone camera's lens while you are with us"? What about employees, or even worse, those who might be planning to leave your employ?

The consumer face of this is, of course, digital shoplifting. Snapshotting magazine articles is still mostly constrained by the poor image quality (at the moment), but that will change soon, and so more nefarious uses will undoubtedly emerge. [They're likely to be fringe elements, like those who resell shaky videos of current feature films taken while in the theatre. -- Ed.]

On the other hand, all those clamouring about invasion of privacy are another cup of tea entirely. I have no sympathy with these concerns when exercised in public, where frankly, everything is public after all. What is an interesting dilemma however, is where camera phones are taken into gyms and indoor sports complexes, men's rooms, and ladies' rooms. Should someone be able to "talk" on a mobile in the changing room? Public exposure starts to raise a few eyebrows in this context of misuse. The etiquette and rules constraining professional photographers (and amateurs) should have the same bearing on camera phone snappers, but will they?

On the upside, the innovative uses of on-the-spot camera phones already stretches the imagination. I've taken a few sample pictures with my camera phone to illustrate the benefits.

Figure A shows a picture of an injured person, providing early injury assessment in accident situations.


Camera phones can provide on-the-spot early injury assessment in accident situations. (click for larger image)