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Beware the ubiquitous cell phone, because some of those equipped with cameras are in the hands of perverts bent on invading your privacy.

Media coverage of arrests in this regard is on the increase, with the focus mainly on men who surreptitiously use a camera phone to photograph up women’s skirts. Once such images are transmitted to cyberspace, the damage becomes impossible to contain.

Since J-Phone Co. in November 2000 debuted the first cell phone capable of taking and transmitting photos, the firm’s products have met with huge success. Other cell phone giants, including NTT DoCoMo, Inc. and KDDI Corp., followed, rapidly expanding the mobile phone-camera market.

J-Phone had sold more than 8 million handsets as of January, while as of February, NTT DoCoMo had sold over 6 million and KDDI 3.45 million.

The increasing popularity of cell phones equipped with cameras prompted one NTT DoCoMo official to say it won’t be long before such phones are the norm.

But as use of the new medium expands, so too will abuses involving the products, not to mention public concern that current ordinances will not curb abuses.

Perverts taking snapshots aren’t the only illicit use; the phones can be used for other forms of privacy invasion as well as copyright infringements.

Experts say phone cameras are so handy that people grow careless about when they release the shutters.

Venues where taking photographs is prohibited, including courtrooms, museums and concert halls, are having a hard time trying to prevent people with such products from infringing on other people’s rights.

The mobile phone companies are unanimous in their position that users of their products should have a sense of conscience and morals.

“When we first developed a cell phone featuring a camera, we wanted to enable users to communicate by sending pictures with messages,” said J-Phone spokesman Naoyuki Nakagaki, adding it is regrettable some people are abusing the phones’ capabilities.

In a bid to deter their improper use, Nakagaki said, every model from the start has been made to emit a sound when the shutter is released to let other people know when a photo has been taken. Switching the phone to vibration mode does not turn off the camera sound, he added.

Some cell phones also emit light when the shutter is pressed. Others feature a lens cover to reassure people that they are not being photographed when the phone is being used.

Carriers include statements in their product catalogs and on their Web sites warning against illegal invasion of privacy and infringement of copyrights and other rights.

They thus claim they are doing everything they can to persuade users to use discretion when taking and transmitting photos. The firms say they will continue their efforts in raising people’s awareness.

The mobile phone industry also argues that taking pictures with hidden cameras is not just an issue involving cell phones: Digital cameras and digital video cameras are likewise prone to abuse, and models have been greatly downsized due to new technology. Some now are even palm-size.

But at the same time, cell phone companies say they are well aware that more attention should be paid to issues of privacy and other rights, especially now that camera phones are poised to dominate the industry. With some models costing as little as 3,000 yen, it’s hard to avoid not getting on the bandwagon.

One danger might be that users will be less concerned about what they photograph.

“I once heard a journalist say camera phones can be comparable to one’s eye,” Nakagaki of J-Phone said.

Another feature of cell phones with cameras is that photos can be transmitted immediately after they are shot.

According to an Internet survey conducted by IPSe Marketing Inc. in December, more than 67 percent of 451 respondents who have cell phones with cameras said they use the devices to transmit photos. Once the photos enter cyberspace, there is no way to stop them from spreading.

Some venues are now restricting the use of cell phones. Tipness Ltd., which runs a chain of sports clubs, has banned the use of mobile phones in all of its outlets since February to protect customer privacy from unauthorized snapshots.

“Cell phones are prohibited, no matter how the members may want to use them,” except in cafeterias and lounges, a Tipness spokesman said.

The Fukuoka District Court has issued a warning to its branches that photos may have been taken of defendants in court by people using phone cameras.

But a court official described the difficulty in banning cell phones.

“In most cases, cameras are not allowed to be brought into courtrooms. But with cell phones, you can’t really take them away on the assumption that the devices will be used to take photos,” the official said.

Museums, concert halls and other places where photography is not allowed face similar dilemmas.

Some experts say, however, that relying on users’ self-control will only spur the perverts on.

Shinji Miyadai, an assistant professor of sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said that forbidding photography in a certain location will not discourage people who have moral lapses or a total disregard for the rights and privacy of others.

“Japanese have little awareness about the need to protect personal information, copyrights and other rights,” so they don’t think twice about taking photos with mobile phones, even if it is banned, Miyadai said.

Before relying on people’s sense of conscience, society must work to underscore the importance of protecting intangible rights, he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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