- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The world has yet to figure out whether camera phones are friends or foes. Mobile telephones that take and transmit digital photos are lauded by fans in love with their novelty and immediacy. Global sales are up by 65 percent this year; about 42 million of us will gab and click on the same device by year’s end.

But the intriguing phones also have become a kind of technology non grata.

Some people in Japan are taking secret photos up women’s skirts and down into bathroom stalls. Some companies are worried about industrial espionage. Others are using the devices as the source of the latest petty crime: digital shoplifting.

Some canny customers have discovered they can snap quick images from new books, magazines and other materials for review later — no need to buy. The high-tech pirating has become so vexing in Japan that typical book shops lose an estimated $26,000 a year in sales because of the practice.

The publishers call it “information theft.”

Last week, the Japan Magazine Publishers Association went after the phone pirates, distributing 30,000 sternly worded posters to the nation’s booksellers to warn browsers to “refrain from recording information with camera-mounted cell phones and other devices.” The group has the full support of Japan’s Telecommunications Carriers Association.

Meanwhile, camera phones have become unwelcome in gyms, dressing rooms, subways, swimming pools, voting booths and other public spots in the United States and elsewhere after images of unwitting subjects surfaced on the Internet and in the press.

The British Broadcasting Corp., in fact, openly solicits camera-phone photos from those “in the right place at the right time” and publishes an online gallery of the images each Friday. London-based Celebsnappers also solicits phone shots of celebrities, calling the keen-eyed phoners the “snaparazzi.”

On a darker note, Scottish police recently broke up a child pornography ring using camera phones to transmit their material.

There’s intrigue, as well.

Fearful of industrial espionage, Samsung, the world’s leading manufacturer of camera phones, has banned them from their factories as of yesterday. Visitors and employees alike are prohibited from toting the devices.

Industry analysts say the problem can be curtailed if consumers use camera phones responsibly.

“The same responsibility that goes with using a disposable camera will apply to a camera phone,” said Kimberly Kuo, spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. “The [cell phone] technology evolves, but the responsibility to respect the law and people’s privacy remains the same.”

Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department and the Montgomery County Police Department so far have not handled complaints about camera phones, spokesmen said.

The phones are predicted to outsell film and digital cameras alike by 2005, said market research groups IDC and Future Image.

This prediction prompted many businesses to stay camera-phone friendly. Both Fuji and Kodak are developing in-store kiosks, which allow the photo phoners to print their images on paper, on the spot.

Real estate agents, construction companies, architects, home remodelers, doctors, security specialists, emergency workers and insurance adjusters are among those who now use camera phones to transmit immediate images to interested parties.

“With what we’ve saved in shipping fees and the amount we’re able to communicate with our guys, the phones pretty much paid for themselves in three weeks,” one happy construction manager told Entrepreneur magazine this month.

The phones, introduced in Japan in late 2000, are gaining popularity in the United States, priced from about $350 to $600 and compatible with carriers such as Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T; and Cingular. The somewhat-grainy images are sent either to another camera-enabled phone or to any e-mail address.

Sony and Mitsubishi have just introduced upgraded camera phones in Japan capable of taking photos “on par with low-end digital cameras and disposable cameras,” a spokesman said last month.

Kausalya Saptharishi contributed to this report.

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