Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003

Camera Phones

Inventor: Various

Sometimes the true measure of a technology's impact is not how quickly it spreads but how long it takes for the backlash to set in. No sooner had cell phones with built-in digital cameras caught on in the U.S. this year than they started getting banned—primarily in health clubs and corporate headquarters. Abroad, concerns about misuse of the gadgets got so bad that Saudi Arabia outlawed them altogether.

Like the Internet before them, camera phones open up a new and surprisingly spontaneous way to communicate. Because they are inconspicuous—many look like regular cell phones—you can snap pictures as discreetly as any spy and, with the push of a few buttons, pop them into an e-mail or upload them to the Web in less than a minute. No wires or computer hookups necessary. To be sure, most camera phones end up taking impromptu pictures of friends, family, babies and pets. But they have also been used to snap pictures of celebrities at private parties, copy recipes from cookbooks at bookstores and even document crimes in progress. In Italy, police nabbed two robbers after a shop owner snapped their pictures and e-mailed them to authorities. In Britain, what looked like a rape in progress at a pub was caught on a camera phone. And in Osaka, Japan, police set up an e-mail address citizens can use to submit shots of suspicious activities.

It was when phone-cam pictures of women undressing in locker rooms began circulating online that some health clubs felt they had to step in. Similarly, General Motors and Volkswagen have prohibited them from their product-development facilities to stave off corporate espionage. In September, guests at a party for Britney Spears were required to check their camera phones at the door.

But with an estimated 80 million camera phones sold this year—6 million in the U.S. alone—the cat may already be out of the camera bag. Like it or not, these hot new gadgets are here to stay.