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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 18, 2004

Privacy issues plague picture phones

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

After a tough running or cycling workout, there's nothing Waikiki resident Casey Wong, 33, likes better than a long slow swim at Ala Moana Beach and a quick rinse at the public showers near Magic Island.

Snapshots of the picture phone

• There were 25 million picture-phone users in 2002, according to the ARC Group, a wireless industry analysis organization. ARC says that figure could increase to 55 million by the end of 2003.

• According to ARC, 15 percent of all mobile-phone handsets in use now have camera functions.

• Verizon's picture messaging service logged an estimated 1 million transmissions in its first month of service, July 2003.

• Locally, 24-Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym and the YMCA have banned picture phones from their facilities.

• In Osaka, Japan, police have set up a Web site where people can send picture-phone images of crimes in progress or suspicious behavior.

• Picture phones have been banned in sensitive areas of some military installations.

And like many recreational swimmers who visit the beach every day, Wong has never been shy about executing a very quick, very discreet beach change — changing clothes with a towel wrapped around her — at her car in the parking lot after her shower.

But, because of the growing popularity of camera-equipped cell phones, that could change.

"It's freaky," she said. "You can be minding your own business and some pervert could be sending (a picture of you) to all his friends."

A more troubling possibility is that a person's private moment in a public place could be shared not just with a couple of remote peeping Toms, but with thousands of anonymous strangers via one of hundreds of quasi-porn "upskirt" sites on the Internet.

Or, if any one of the dozen or so cell-phone users in the area had the inclination and the technology, Wong could have, quite unknowingly, become someone's home computer wallpaper by the time she got home.

"It's bad enough when you catch creepy guys looking," Wong says. "But it's even worse that they could be standing there like they're on the phone but trying to (photograph) you without you even knowing."

Roughly a year since the major cell-phone companies began a massive rollout of relatively inexpensive cell phones capable of taking and transmitting digital photographs, concerns about their abuse are being raised in public and private quarters.

Local health clubs, spas and other businesses in Hawai'i are reacting to the threat of picture-phone voyeurs by banning photo cell phones from their locker rooms and gyms. Among the facilities prohibiting picture phones are 24-Hour Fitness, Gold's Gym and the YMCA.

Local educators, meanwhile, have voiced concerns that phones could be used by high-school and college students to photograph tests and pass the photos to other students and that concern in part caused Kaiser High School officials to order that student cell phones be turned off during class or they would be confiscated. Though that misapplication is unlikely at the moment because of the relatively low reproduction quality of picture phones, salespeople from Verizon and other wireless phone companies agree that clearer images are just a matter of time.

There are other fail-safes starting to take shape to prevent picture-phone abuse. A recently enacted "video voyeur" law makes it illegal in Hawai'i to take unsuspecting "upskirt" shots.

But even that law might not deter individuals emboldened by the inconspicuous, easy-to-use nature of the compact phones. And it hasn't allayed the anxieties of those who fear that our technological capabilities have outrun our ethical sensibilities.

"They make me a little paranoid just to be outside," said Chad Oliveira, 41, of Waipi'o. "You never know who is shooting you doing any kind stupid stuff. I don't want somebody on the Internet looking at me picking my nose or something."

Oliveira said his daughter, Kai-Lynn, 24, has a picture phone.

"She goes around shooting people she doesn't even know, just for laughs," Oliveira said. "Makes you wonder what someone else would do who isn't just playing."

While miniature spy-style cameras have been on the open market for decades, the perceived threat of surreptitious photography has perhaps never been so high, even though, in Hawai'i at least, the potential for abuse has not been realized.

Detective Chris Duque of the Honolulu Police Department's White Collar Crime Unit, said he has not received any complaints about picture phones being used illegally.

"We hear a lot of stories from Asia and the Mainland, but it's not a problem here yet," he said.

Picture phones were first made available in Asia and parts of Europe. They were introduced to the U.S. market in 2002.

Unlike text messaging or remote Internet access, which needed time (and technological improvements) to attract mainstream users, picture messaging has been a near-instant hit in the United States.

Verizon spokeswoman Georgia Taylor said more than 1 million picture transmissions were logged within a month of their initial picture phone rollout. The popularity of the phones is reflected in an overall bright year for the wireless phone industry in 2003.

Taylor said she could not discuss specific sales figures, but said picture phones in general were "a big hit with all age groups" during the Christmas season.

"They were the holiday gift of choice," she said.

As consumers become more and more accustomed to using the phones, new applications are being discovered every day.

On the Mainland, real-estate agents use the phones to transmit pictures of new properties to clients. Drivers have used them to document accidents for their insurance claims.

On the Internet, hundreds of so-called "moblogs" — mobile phone Web logs — have popped up during the past year featuring low-res digital photography from picture phones.

"They're supposed to be just for fun, but they have a lot of practical uses," said Cameron Park, 17, of Pearl City.

Park said he once used his phone to prove to his parents that he was at the library and not cruising with his friends at an arcade.

"There was nothing they could say to that," he said. "The truth was right there in the picture."

The cameras also have been used effectively for personal safety and crime prevention. In Osaka, Japan, police have set up an e-mail address for people to send picture-phone photos of suspicious activity or crimes in progress.

In New Jersey last year, a 15-year-old boy used his picture phone to snap photos of a man trying to lure him into a car. He also caught the car's license plate, enabling police to later apprehend the would-be kidnapper.

Still, ubiquitous as the phones have become, so are the concerns.

Saudi Arabia outlawed the phones last year after reports that men were using it to photograph women improperly. In Britain, lawmakers have called for a similar ban citing concerns that the phones could be used for child pornography. In November, South Korea mandated that manufacturers equip picture phones with audible beeps to alert people when a photo is being taken.

Patty Rangasajo, manager of the 24-Hour Fitness facility on Kapi'olani Boulevard, said a new rule banning picture phones was enacted for all 24-Hour Fitness gyms starting this month.

A notice distributed chainwide warns gym users that "cell phones with cameras may not be used anywhere in our facilities and all cell-phone use shall be prohibited within the locker room areas."

Rangasajo said the notice elaborates on the club's existing restrictions on filming, photography and videography.

John Morrisroe, manager of Gold's Gym, said he hasn't heard of any improper use of picture phones in Hawai'i, but decided to ban the use of picture phones as a precaution after being approached by a television reporter.

"I think this is more of a Mainland problem," he said. "But we decided we might as well put the rule in place."

Just last week Kaiser High School's School Community Based Management group passed a policy restricting student cell-phone use in general to lunch and recess.

"They didn't get into camera phones too much, but they do want to establish some sort of policy," said acting principal Peter Chun. "We'll probably address this under the umbrella of privacy issues. There should not be recording devices in places like bathrooms, locker rooms or anywhere else where there is an expectation of privacy."

The Board of Education may discuss a systemwide rule about picture phones, but with little to substantiate concerns, formal action is unlikely.

"We've heard a lot of scuttlebutt, but nothing has been officially brought to the board, and I'm not sure it will ever get to that point," said BOE chairman Breene Harimoto. "I'm inclined to let the schools decide for themselves or come to us if they feel it's necessary."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.