Mobiles with built-in cameras have sparked fears of industrial espionage. And schools, health clubs and strip joints have also banned the devices. Is the lens cap being put on phone snappers?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine
Point, snap, send
The booming popularity of camera phones which can take and instantly send photos - and, with some models, short video clips - have piqued fears about workplace security.
The prospect of sensitive information being snapped and sent to other phones, copied to websites or e-mailed to others has prompted the likes of Intel, the phone maker Samsung, the UK's Foreign Office and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in the United States to go as far as banning camera phones from their buildings.
At previews for popular films, reviewers are being asked to leave such gadgets behind, to prevent unauthorised stills being leaked before the release date.
Now Sprint, the US phone operator, and the handheld PC manufacturer PalmOne - keen to cater to deep-pocketed clients concerned about industrial espionage - have released a camera-less version of the best-selling Treo 600 smartphone.
Although convictions for the misuse of camera phones have so far involved invasion of privacy rather than corporate espionage, those with secrets worth stealing worry that it is a matter of when, not if.
Tim Donahue, of Sprint, says those in the fields of finance, government, hi-tech manufacturing, and research and development are most concerned. "They're just scared to death someone might take a photograph of something."
Worldwide, more camera phones were sold last year than digital cameras - a first. Sales went up almost five-fold from 2002 to 84 million.
In some countries, almost every model sold has a built-in camera. In Japan, for instance, it has become next to impossible to take a sneaky pic without someone noticing - people have come to recognise the posture of a phone snapper, which is quite different to that of a talker, gamer or texter.
Phone snappers are now ubiquitous
According to Guardian travel writer Gwyn Topham, of all the tourists who annoy others with their cameras, those with phones are the worst offenders.
"The simple Camcorder Man is at least a discreet menace compared with the new Mobile Muppet, ignoring all around while holding his phone aloft, trying to capture a grainy image to send to a mate who couldn't care less," he wrote.
And those with concerns about privacy and child protection issues also have a problem with the devices. Some schools, fitness centres and local councils have banned camera phones from their premises, as has an Edinburgh lap dancing club to protect the identities of its workers and clients.
Some schools ban camera phones
Camera phones are banned in Saudi Arabia, and their use is frowned upon in other Middle Eastern nations. In the US, lawmakers are considering a bill banning so-called up-skirt photos and other forms of voyeurism. One possibility is a law forbidding the use of camera-phones operating without the familiar "shutter" noise.
And in Italy, the government's information watchdog has issued guidelines on the use of the devices, which state that users can only take photos of people for personal use and must keep the images safe.
Emily Turrettini, of Textually, a website which monitors camera phone trends, says that such paranoia is caused by the gadgets' dual function.
"Taking a picture and being able to send it with immediacy - these two technologies combined obviously continue to fuel lawmakers' imagination of worst-case scenarios."
Popular model: The Treo 600
While it makes sense to ban all cameras - phone or otherwise - from workplaces with sensitive information, Ms Turrettini says the horror stories about these new gadgets have gained an influence out of all proportion.
"It reminds me of the early days of the internet. In 1995, Time magazine ran a cover story about how easy it was to access porn online, and it created a tremendous backlash against the web.
"Camera phones can't do anything nearly as dubious as can be done on the internet. But with the internet, we've had time to see that it can do many wonderful things as well."
Regardless of bans and clampdowns on the use of such gadgets, the popularity of camera phones seems unlikely to wane Some experts predict that by 2007, almost half of the mobiles sold worldwide will include a camera.