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Friday, 3 January, 2003, 08:54 GMT
When every picture tells a story
With cameras everywhere, technology consultant Bill Thompson wonders if we should be worried about where the images of ourselves are ending up
I saw my first picture phone in the wild just before Christmas.
Walking down Regent Street in Cambridge I noticed a young man ask the woman he was with to stand still for a moment while he snapped her with his Ericsson T68i.
Since it was the first time I had actually seen a phone used to take a photo, apart from the various demonstrations given to me by my more geeky friends, I went up to him and asked him what he thought of the camera and whether he thought it would catch on.
"Don't know," he replied, "I just bought the phone and was playing around."
So much for the latest trend.
Capturing the mood
A parent at my daughter's school carol concert was snapping with her Nokia 7650.
My friend Simon takes every opportunity he can to show off the features of his Orange SPV phone, but he is hardly typical of the target market for this new toy.
There is a lot of scepticism about the likely success of camera phones, partly prompted by the over-the-top advertising for the services, which seems to resemble the hype over WAP.
WAP promised much by overstating things like ease of use and picture quality, while ignoring things like the cost or lack of compatibility of the services across networks.
Yet despite the current uncertainties and inadequacies, I think camera phones will catch on and rather rapidly.
They will be used by all sorts of businesses, from tree surgeons to roofing contractors, and no estate agent or used car sales person will be without one.
By the end of the year they will be pretty ubiquitous in many work settings.
They will also be used more creatively, by teenage girls consulting friends about which boys they should dance with at the disco.
Dedicated shoppers will use them to ask advice on anything from underwear to which Heal's sofa to buy, and fans will snap celebrities in the street.
Spying on each other
However they will have other, less innocuous uses. As a recent contributor to the BBC message board pointed out, we will quickly see conversations like this one:
Mum: "Show me a picture".
While this may sound defensible, what about having to provide picture evidence of your red nose and bleary eyes when you call in sick, or a photo of your mates to your partner when you go out for an evening without them.
Even having your photograph taken every time you buy alcohol.
We are already filmed using cash machines, so why not every time we enter a shop?
If you want to see the future, then look at easyCar. The rental company insists that all UK customers are photographed with a webcam when they rent a car.
In October it started publishing the names and photographs of customers whose cars were over 15 days overdue on its website.
At the moment the site has no pictures, but search for easyCar overdue cars and the Google cache happily reveals details of one such customer, who, it seems, has now returned his vehicle.
The people named and shamed on this site have not broken any law. They are not accused of a crime. They are simply people who have kept a car longer than they said they would.
EasyCar has a contract with the people who rent its cars. What it is doing is not unlawful, it is just unethical and, to my mind, remarkably intrusive.
This policy means I will never rent from them but that probably does not bother them.
However it is also a pointer to a future in which visual records are increasingly available online, and this has some frightening implications.
We will soon be surrounded by millions of picture phones, all with internet connectivity and the ability to send photos via e-mail, or upload them to websites.
The impact on our personal privacy has not been discussed at all, yet the technology is coming whether or not we consider what it means.
This may not seem to matter much, until someone clever in a research lab figures out how to do image matching and creates a new search engine that will trawl the entire net for photos of this face.
How will I feel when anyone who is curious can find the photos on this site, the pictures where I am in the background, and all the other many appearances my bearded, hairy face makes online?
How will you feel when it happens to you?
If personal privacy means anything, it means being able to go about one's business unobserved.
CCTV systems in city centres impinge on this, but they are at least regulated and controlled by local authorities. If the newspapers publish photos of you then you can complain or sue.
But what about the pictures of you drinking too much that appear on your friends' website and get you into trouble at work?
What about the photo of you in a cafe with someone you shouldn't be seeing that ends your relationship?
What about the snap that shows you asking for directions from a stranger, when that stranger turns out to be a terrorist suspect and you end up being questioned?
Some technologies change the world in ways that were never imagined when they were first created or sold.
The telephone, originally thought of as a way of delivering news and concerts to large numbers of people, transformed business.
The internet, a research network for computer scientists, made large-scale publishing at very low cost possible.
The combination of easy web publishing with picture phones could mark a decisive shift in our approach to personal privacy, a shift that we may end up regretting.
What do you think of camera phones? This is what you had to say:
I don't understand this obsession with privacy. If you are in a public place, nothing you are doing is private as such - it is all open to passing inspection. Unless you have something to hide why would you be worried about a more permanent record of your public activities?
Why do you suggest this trend in technology is undesirable? The more surveillance the better. If, from time to time, someone not implicated at that instance is turned over by the authorities - so what?
I agree with Bill that phone/cameras are potentially threatening to personal privacy. But, as Bill points out, this is just an extension of the intrusion of technology into our lives that seems unavoidable. Some modification to privacy legislation is needed to take into account this new technology.
Local papers already publish photos of thieves taken by cameras in shops and news reports of drunk drivers. In the US some pro-life groups plan to film people going into clinics to publish. The idea is to name and shame. I see no reason to be concerned about photos of people doing anti-social things like being drunk in the street and threatening behaviour. Surely this is not a problem if the same thing extends to the internet? Our photos pop up all over the place. The street is a public place after all and you can be photographed there without restriction. This is surely a basic freedom.
I can virtually guarantee that this will be the next big thing. People love gimmicky things like this, but like many new technologies they will be hail and used in mass, with little consequence to it being overtly intrusive. Millions of e-mail/text message etc are sent each day will little regard to who's snooping. The same will happen will photo messaging. The big companies will make there fortunes, but ultimately our privacy will be jeopardised. But of course it was your choice to send the message in the first place, big business just provide the technology.
While some of the fears about having one's photo put about the internet without one's knowledge are, perhaps, justifiable, who's to say that hasn't already happened without your knowledge? How about the holiday snaps where you're in someone else's photo? As for being asked for a photo as proof that I'm truly ill, I would have no problem with that so long as I was telling the truth. Anyone pulling a sickie would be caught out, which is fair enough. If I suspected my husband was cheating on me, I'd be so grateful for these phones now. It's a brilliant way to get proof that your husband is meeting up with the ex behind your back, when they promised not to. I'd rather end a relationship like that, than remain in the dark and carry on like fool.
With all new technology there will be a downside, but with camera phones I think there are many benefits. I think crime or crimefighting will benefit a lot, for example you see someone acting suspiciously outside a school or see a car speed away from a bank.
Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.
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