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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Nothing s sacred or kept secret with a camera cell phone in hand

University of Toledo roommates Ryan Reedy, left, and Martin Gray, show each other s image on their camera cell phones, an example of their use for just fun. University of Toledo roommates Ryan Reedy, left, and Martin Gray, show each other s image on their camera cell phones, an example of their use for just fun.

Cell phone or spy gadget?

Ephemeral fad for the young and techno-geeks? Or something more sinister for pedophiles and the like?

At the risk of sounding paranoid, folks at local gyms, museums, companies with trade secrets, and even federal courthouses are taking a real close look at the hottest new way to keep in touch: Camera cell phones.

Hand-held like any other mobile phone, camera cell phones are equipped with tiny lenses and the ability to capture an image and disseminate it in minutes by wireless e-mail.

“You can look like you re [talking] on your phone and click! ” said Jim Montgomery, a security supervisor for DaimlerChrysler AG, which has banned the devices from their plants because of a concern about proprietary information being leaked out.

“Or you could look like you re taking a picture of someone, and you re actually taking a picture of the car behind them,” he said.

Buoyed by the sale of camera phones that were first introduced in Japan about three years ago, worldwide sales of mobile phones overall had surpassed market expectations by late last year.

In fact, a Boston-based research group, IDC, believes cell phones with cameras will prove to be the “fastest-growing consumers electronic device of all time,” surpassing sales growth rates of CD players and DVD players when they were introduced last decade, spokesman Mike Shirer said.

World-wide, IDC estimates, 56.8 million camera cell phone users last year will explode to 298 million units by 2007, he said.

“Increasingly [the camera is] a feature finding its way into the new phones,” he said.

And that s what worries folks like Steve Miller, agent in charge of the Toledo office of the U.S. Marshals Service, the agency charged with security at federal courthouses.

There cameras and recording devices have long been forbidden.

Now the ease with which a visitor can snap photos undetected, of jurors for example, is alarming. But so far, courthouse security is enforcing no cell phone ban, he said.

“Each district makes their own call on that, but I m sure it s coming nationwide soon, real soon,” agent Miller said.

More than security, it was the possibility of clandestine photography in locker rooms and other private areas that prompted the YMCA of Greater Toledo to prohibit the camera cell phones.

Spokesman Jennifer Ruple said a more sweeping policy is in the works, given that so many other electronics also can snap pictures.

Soon no cell phones or handheld PCs will be allowed in Y facilities at all, she said.

“We ve not had any incidents,” she said, “but we thought of it more of as a preventative measure.

Other health clubs have instructed trainers and staff to be on the lookout for such devices, but have not outright prohibited them.

Ron Hemelgarn, owner of the area s 21st Century Health Spas, said he s heard rumors about breaches in privacy at clubs on the West Coast, but he can t confirm any of the incidents and wonders if the stories aren t the latest stuff of urban legends. Anyway, experience has taught him that folks who come to health clubs are there simply to work out, he said.

“Toledo people are good, hardworking people,” he said. “You don t hear that crazy stuff here you hear about in California.”

Certainly, most consumers use the cell phone cameras, to capture harmless images at concerts or with friends or of funny happenings in public.

“It s a great way to capture a spontaneous moment,” said Bryan Zidar, spokesman at T-Mobile USA.

“We see fun. I m shopping. Do you like this pair of shoes? Or people have used it for dating. Do you think he s cute? That type of thing.”

A University of Toledo student, Martin Gray purchased his camera-equipped cell phone at the beginning of the school year and recently used it at a party thrown by his Bible fellowship group. He and his girlfriend sent the pictures they snapped to out-of-town parents and grandparents.

A necessity? Not really, conceded the student of human resource management.

“It s not at all a need,” he said. “It s more a want, definitely.”

Agreed roommate Ryan Reedy, a mechanical engineering student: “I can t say there s a lot of sound uses for it. ...It s just fun.”

He laughed: “It s something for us na ve kids to spend their money on.”

Still, the devices have Toledo police Detective Ann Smith worried.

Having years of experience investigating sex crimes, Detective Smith said pedophiles and other established criminals might buy more surreptitious camera equipment - tiny devices that can be hidden in clothes or on furniture, for example.

But the new cell phones, which cost next to nothing with the right service plan, could turn “a crazy office party or college prank” into a lasting nightmare for the unsuspecting, Detective Smith said.

“Maybe there s some drinking at a party and things get a little out of hand,” she said.

“Nobody s brought a camera, but - hey! - there s this cell phone.

“Suddenly, someone who might not normally be a voyeur can easily take advantage of the situation,” she said.

But Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak noted that “all the rules and regulations in the world” won t stop such behavior, and he suggested that the camera cell phones could be used to curb crime as well.

Witnesses could take pictures at crime scenes, he said, adding that “99.9 percent of us, we re just going to use it in fun, and things to add to our lives.”

Even that could be a concern for folks at the Toledo Museum of Art, especially in their contemporary art collections, said spokesman Holly Taylor.

Visitors there could unwittingly infringe on copyright laws, she said.

“Sometimes we don t own the right to reproduce a work of art even though we might own the piece,” she said, “so we try to restrict photography in those galleries.”

The debate is certain to continue, as technology makes the cameras cheaper and the images clearer.

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