Smile — for the cell phone

Camera phones bring pictures along with concerns about privacy.
Sunday, December 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Picture this: You’re out with friends and all of a sudden, the perfect photo opportunity arises but, you don’t have a camera with film. Fortunately, you are the owner of the new model of cell phone with a digital camera. You can easily snap the photo with your phone, transfer it to your computer and print it out.

Because the cell phone is the one piece of electronic equipment many people carry now at all times, companies are advertising the new camera feature as an advantage that will prevent people from missing spontaneous photo opportunities. However, with the convenience of these phone cameras comes an increase in privacy concerns that may become pertinent as the phones become more common.

Privacy concerns have already arisen at health clubs, concert halls, museums and other places that normally restrict photography. A Dec. 1 article in the New York Times reported that the South Korean government requires domestic manufacturers of the phones to include a feature that emits a beep before a picture is taken. This legislation was enacted because inappropriate photographs taken at a public bath were posted on a Web site. These concerns have spread to the United States and have since sparked discussion about personal privacy nationwide.

The camera phones, which have become popular in Asia and Europe during the past three years, hit Columbia stores a little more than three months ago. Sales associates say they have been very popular with customers.

Alex Zemianek, a consultant at Cingular Wireless in the Forum Shopping Center, estimated about 15 percent of the new phones he sells have the camera feature.

So far, Zemianek said mostly college students are interested in buying the new model of phone, but it wouldn’t surprise him if eventually all cell phone users carried a phone with a camera attached.

“It’s expanding pretty rapidly,” he said.

Many people apparently are not overly concerned about invasion of privacy due to camera phones.

Ginger Dial, a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in downtown Columbia, said people don’t usually bring their phones in when they work out, so it hasn’t been a problem. Photography is allowed at the gym as long as there are no distinguishable features in the picture, such as a person’s face. The policy also requires photographers to ask permission of thesubjects and the manager first. In other words, a photograph of someone’s legs walking on a treadmill is OK with permission.

“We don’t want our clientele to feel uncomfortable in the gym,” Dial said.

In fact, Dial said she recently purchased one of the new camera phones and has been happy with the camera feature for a different reason than most users. Dial, who has a vision disability, uses her new phone to take pictures of her friends and family to save along with their phone numbers. That way, when someone she knows calls, his or her picture will pop up on the screen, rather than a name in tiny print that Dial would have trouble reading.

“I think it’s great,” said Dial.

Other Columbians said they hadn’t really thought the phones would cause a problem. Kathy Messner, box office manager of the University of Missouri concert series, as well as Jeff Wilcox of the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology and Richard King, owner of the Blue Note, said they were not worried about the camera phones causing problems at their venues.

Many store managers at the Columbia Mall said that so far they have had no problems with customers using the camera phone’s inappropriately in the stores or dressing rooms. However, most stores said they previously had policies against all photography, so the new type of camera hasn’t sparked much discussion.

“We haven’t talked about camera phones, but we don’t allow photography in the store, “ said Dan Rataj, an assistant store manager at Eddie Bauer.

Still, more issues may arise as the camera phones’ popularity increases. John Meier, the store manager of the Columbia Mall’s American Eagle store said although he hasn’t experienced any problems with the camera phones, he has seen customers using the technology to take pictures of each other as they shopped. American Eagle doesn’t allow photography, but Meier said it wasn’t necessary to ask the customers to stop because the incidents endedquickly and no other customers were disturbed by the photography.

Helen Weiss, the divisional vice president of public relations for Famous Barr, where photography is also restricted, said so far her store has not experienced any problems stemming from camera phone use..

“We do not permit customers or anyone in the store to take pictures without permission and we enforce that policy,” Weiss said.

However, Weiss also acknowledged the cell phone cameras, which are smaller and easier to conceal than a regular camera, may be more difficult to spot.

Some Columbia residents also have concerns.

Joy Borchardt, of Columbia , said these days, privacy is a big concern.

“I can’t deny that this (a camera phone) offers another way that our privacy can be violated,” she said. . “But it’s difficult to tell people that they can’t carry cell phones. We’ll just have to become more aware.”

Borchardt said she doesn’t care for cell phones herself, but realizes thecamera phones have become a central part of today’s culture.

“I have to accept that they’re all around me,” she said.

Jessie Benfield, a sales representative at Mid-America Wireless in Columbia, said she understands why people might have privacy concerns about the new cell phones, but so far she hasn’t heard any complaints.

“The reason we sell camera phones is not so that people can take pictures without other people knowing it,” she said. “It’s so they can send baby pictures to their grandma. There’s always that special moment.”

In fact, some may consider having a cell phone with a camera a safety measure. In August, a 15-year-old boy in Clifton, N.J., was able to save himself from an abduction attempt when he used his camera phone to snap pictures of a man who was trying to lure him into a car. He was even able to capture a shot of the car’s license plate that the police used to track and arrest the suspect the next day.

Only time will tell whether these new camera phones will become a staple in American culture. These cameras should at least be prevalent in the near future — market analysts expect that in the next few years, camera phone sales may exceed the sales of digital and film cameras combined.

Tony Henning, the editor of consulting firm Future Image’s wireless imaging information service, estimated that in 2003, between 32 million and 35 million digital cameras and 60 million regular cameras were sold. Remarkably, Henning also estimated that in the same year, 50 million camera phones and 40 million phones with add-on camera attachments were sold — a total almost equal to the sales of digital and regular cameras. Henning expects that in 2004, as the technology and picture quality improves, those numbers will increase.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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