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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rhodri Marsden: Should camera phones really be allowed to take pictures silently?

I have to sheepishly confess that I’ve taken a surruptitious photo using my phone before. A few years back, some guy had spread his legs so wide apart while sitting in a packed train carriage that it prevented anyone from sitting next to him. I snapped him with the intention of shaming him online – but bottled out of uploading it, because he looked a bit dangerous and I feared bloody revenge.

CCTV is seen as the unwelcome eye of Big Brother, but some people are getting increasingly exercised about Britain’s tens of millions of camera phones. They’re starting to twig that instant publishing to online services such as Twitpic and Flickr means that you don’t really know who’ll end up seeing a photo – so if they see someone pointing a camera phone in their vague direction, they’re less likely to adopt a graceful pose than tell you where to stick your camera. Last year, a father of two was harangued by women at a Wolverhampton playground for taking digital photos of his kids playing, presumably because they imagined him weaving the images into some ghoulish collage and sharing it with a paedophile network.

In theory, the law allows us to take pictures in public of whatever and whoever we like, although overzealous interpretation of section 44 of the Terrorism Act has seen police apprehend photographers even when the likelihood of “hostile terrorist reconnaissance” is virtually non-existent. Having said that, persistently photographing someone against their will could see you charged with harrassment, and posting pictures online could be deemed an invasion of privacy. But the only thing that prevents us from innocently taking a single picture of someone is fear of instant retribution. The comedian Lee Hurst recently destroyed a camera phone in fury when he spotted someone he believes was using it to film his act, but Hurst was the one found guilty (of criminal damage).

In South Korea and Japan, the law has recognised our dislike of strangers pap-snapping us by making it compulsory for camera phones to emit a loud click when they take a picture, even in silent mode. A similar bill has been proposed in the US – but the hilarious number of loopholes in this plan mean that committed voyeurs are unlikely to be put off.

We can only console ourselves with the fact that the vast majority of camera phone users are not engaged in malicious acts of covert surveillance, and are just having fun with their new gadgets. Probably.


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