Forget F-Stops: These Cameras Have Area Codes
Published: July 3, 2003

SAM GEDEON, a grocer in Goteborg, Sweden, was in his store one evening in April when a knife-wielding teenager stormed in. ''Just a second,'' Mr. Gedeon recalled telling the young man, who demanded 100 Swedish kronor (about $13). ''The money is upstairs.''

Mr. Gedeon returned not with cash but with his Nokia 7650 cellphone, which can take and transmit digital photographs. He snapped a shot of the 15-year-old. ''He went berserk and started smashing the register,'' Mr. Gedeon said. ''Then he took off. I could have stopped him -- I'm a 45-year-old man, he was a boy -- but as long as he didn't try to take the phone I didn't think it was worth fighting him. I thought the picture would make sure he got captured.''

He thought right. When the police arrived, Mr. Gedeon transmitted the photo to his computer wirelessly and printed it. Thirty minutes later the police used it to identify the young man in a nearby cafe. This week he was sentenced to a year and a half in juvenile detention.

Crime fighting is not emphasized as a primary use as the cellphone industry introduces more and more camera phones capable of taking a quick snapshot and sending it wirelessly to the Internet. But it is just one example of the diverse ways that the phones have been used since their introduction in Japan two years ago and in the United States and Europe over the past several months.

The images made by the phones are relatively poor low-resolution shots most suitable for viewing on the Web or on other phones. But as cameras, the phones have other advantages: they are portable, discreet and networked, allowing them to transmit images to another such phone, an e-mail address or the Internet in seconds.

Soon they may be everywhere. A Boston-based research firm, Strategy Analytics, predicts that 42 million camera cellphones will be sold worldwide this year and that sales will reach 218 million by 2008. ''Eventually, all mobile phones will have either a picture or video camera,'' said Peter Bodor, a spokesman for Sony Ericsson, a cellphone maker.

People may not always carry a camera, but if they have a cellphone, they tend to take it with them every time they leave home. So in a world where the Internet suddenly has eyes -- millions of them -- what can people expect to see?

There are the usual suspects: celebrities, sex and sports. Yet camera phones are also potentially powerful as witnesses to news events or crime, as in Sweden, and are finding uses in medicine, firefighting and crime prevention. The entertainment industry has already adopted them: a music-television show in Austria, for example, asks viewers to vote for their favorite songs and send along a photo of themselves that is shown on the air.

In the United States, cellphone service providers are setting up electronic photo albums where their customers can display phonecam photos. Some users are chronicling their daily lives in pictures posted to phonecam Weblogs (called moblogs, for mobile blogs) like

But there is a negative side to the growing proliferation of these phones. Because they are small and look innocuous, they can be used for spying or for taking voyeuristic photos. And with a phone in every purse or pocket, experts worry that they will be used to capture and publicize the worst in human behavior -- among celebrities and ordinary citizens as well.

Reporters were among the first to catch on to the new technology's potential. In January, Showstudio (, a Web-based fashion magazine, used the tiny cameras to beam photos from Paris fashion shows, producing almost-live coverage of the catwalks and scooping the competition. Pictures were sent directly to the Web.

''We are amazed by the quality of the images,'' said Showstudio's editor in chief, Penny Martin. ''Our interest in the phones hasn't been purely in their documentary or voyeuristic potential. For us, treating the phones as a live publishing mechanism is much more exciting.''

Mark Lebon, a fashion photographer, produced a monthlong display of photographic portraits for Showstudio in May, and the New York-based model Erin O'Connor plans to compile a backstage photo-diary for the Web site at this month's Paris couture shows.

The online service for BBC News is now accepting photographs of news events from readers. ''We thought it was worth trying because there was such a buzz about picture cameras over the winter,'' said Daniel Mermelstein, a journalist in the editorial development department. So far, however, most of the photographs have come from ordinary digital cameras, not camera phones.

''I think as the cameras in phones improve and become more mass-market, we'll see more phone photos sent in,'' Mr. Mermelstein said.

Howard Rheingold, author of ''Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution'' (Perseus, 2002), predicts that phonecams and similar technology will change the news landscape. ''Ultimately, this is going to portend not the replacement of journalism as we know it, but another layer or source of news: citizen journalism, peer-to-peer journalism,'' he said.

In his book, Mr. Rheingold argues that mobile communications and the Internet enable people to engage in collective action -- for example, protests or demonstrations -- in a way and on a scale that they could not before. He cited the 2001 ouster of Joseph Estrada as Philippine president in a popular uprising fanned by text-messaging. Pictures, he said, will reinforce that.

''First of all, we are going to see something like the Rodney King tape in the U.S.,'' he said. ''''It's not just a crime, but something that's newsworthy: abuse of state power.

''Abuse of police power, that's an obvious one. It used to be in political demonstrations, when the police misbehaved, they confiscated the cameras. Well, it doesn't do any good if the pictures are already published to the world.''

The practical applications extend to medical consultations. In Wales, doctors are testing the phones' capacity to speed preliminary diagnoses of breaks and fractures. ''If a junior doctor wants a consultant's opinion on a particular break, he can send a photo of an X-ray and can get the opinion in minutes,'' said Dr. Jonathan Davies, an orthopedic consultant at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant, South Wales, who took part in such a test.

But electronic eyeballs can pry as well as inform. In Britain, The Mail on Sunday reported that a pedophile ring in Scotland was using the phones to exchange images. In Italy, mobile phones were banned from polling booths to prevent vote-rigging in regional elections in May; the government suspected that the Mafia would bribe voters to vote as instructed and then demand a picture of the ballot slip before making the payoff.

For police departments, the camera phones could be useful in identifying missing persons or wanted criminals, but they could also be used to photograph protesters or demonstrators surreptitiously.

Nokia has developed a security camera that can beam pictures directly to a phone if temperature or motion sensors are triggered, a useful safety tool. Yet the camera could be used to spy if installed inconspicuously at the site.

Celebrities could be the biggest target of phonecam photographers. A service called CelebSnapper is already dedicated to receiving phonecam shots of celebrities from mobile phone users and transmitting them to its paid subscribers. It has coined a term for its would-be photo-newshounds: the snaparazzi.

''We have a strict code, spelled out in our terms and conditions,'' said Martin Blakstad, chief operating officer of the Mobile Entertainment Corporation, the London-based company responsible for CelebSnapper. ''Photographs must have the star's consent, and all photos are reviewed before publication to the Web. If the star looks unhappy or has his or her hand up, we won't publish the photo.''

Governments are trying to address the potential privacy problems in advance. Italy's data protection authority, for instance, has issued strict rules on the use of camera phones, requiring the subject's permission if the photo is published.

''We were impressed by the reaction from the public,'' said Stefano Rodota, president of the authority. ''These kinds of mobile phones were only commercialized at Christmas. Immediately afterwards we received complaints.''

In Scotland and Ireland, the phones are banned in government buildings to prevent spying. Some health clubs in the United States and Britain have banned them to prevent photography in the locker rooms. In Japan, all phones have been fitted with a default alert sound (a synthesized voice says ''You've got it'' in Japanese) to deter people from taking pictures covertly.

The laws are evolving to meet concerns. ''Privacy law is very much a fast-developing area, and the courts are definitely developing law which ultimately will give individuals the right to sue each other for infringements,'' said David Engel, a partner with Addleshaw Goddard, a London law firm that has handled invasion-of-privacy cases.

Some skeptics doubt that picture phones will have a lasting impact. Clive Longbottom, service director for the London-based technology analysis firm Quocirca, said he saw ''a wave of interest'' in photos transmitted instantly from camera phones. But he suggests that as the number of pictures available soon becomes overwhelming, they eventually will become ''just another Internet artifact.''

Others believe that like other new technologies, the camera phones will alter life's daily routines, perhaps changing social communication in much the way that text messaging has changed the way many people talk or write to one another. Officials at O2, a European mobile phone provider, predict the emergence of a new image-centered argot, rather like the abbreviations used in text messaging.

O2 set up focus groups to imagine how users might communicate with pictures. Suggestions included a kennel for ''You're in the dog house'' and a long empty road to signify ''It's a long story -- don't even ask.'' Brands could become an even greater part of popular culture, some hypothesized, with the Nike swoosh, for example, standing for ''Just do it.''

But it is the buzz of friends and associates that will lead to innovative adaptations of picture messaging. No focus group can equal the creative ferment of millions of regular users.

Gary Marx, an emeritus professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that some people might end up using the phones as a way of verifying that they are where they say they are. If a teenage boy tells his mother he is at Sandy's house, for example, she might demand a picture as proof.

But pictures are also subject to subversion or fabrication. The son might take a picture at Sandy's house at 7 p.m., go to a party and send the earlier picture. The next time his mother might ask him to take the picture outdoors to make sure it is snapped at roughly the same time of day.

If you tell someone that traffic is making you late, etiquette may come to demand you send proof as an act of good faith. Ditto for sick days at work. The prospect of potentially disagreeable situations disturbs some cellphone users.

''We could see disguises,'' Mr. Marx said, ''people wearing broad-brimmed hats and large sunglasses in public, or even masks.'' He said that people might develop several visual identities in the same way that they establish multiple user names for chat and e-mail accounts.

But predicting how new technology will pan out is a tricky business. Like Mr. Gedeon, the Swedish grocer who came up with his own application on the fly, uses for phonecams will probably develop in ways that few can imagine.

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