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The Scotsman

The Scotsman
Thu 24 Jul 2003
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Why new phones pose a threat to your privacy

Susan Calman

INTERNATIONAL stars such Catherine Zeta Jones and Sara Cox have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect their privacy and prevent publication of unauthorised photographs of themselves and their family.

However, the issue of privacy is not restricted to film stars: it affects all of us.

Amazingly, perhaps, the most recent threat to our private lives comes, not from a photographer from the Sun using a telescopic lens, but from the person sitting opposite you on the bus or in the changing room at your health club.

New technology means that our image can be captured and posted on the internet within seconds. The new generation of camera phones that take still images and, in the case of the new generation of phones, video images, make the publication of photographs on the web a matter of simply pressing a button.

While celebrity gossip sites encourage people to post "ambush" photographs of celebrities, the issue is just as important for the average person in the street.

Already, at least one chain of health clubs in Hong Kong has forbidden the use of mobile phones in locker rooms and other consumer sectors in the Far East have taken the same stand.

Now, cases are arising in Europe where surreptitious photographs have been taken of members of a health club swimming and then posted on the internet. Several pressure groups and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are lobbying to have mobile phones banned from swimming pools and changing rooms.

Indeed, the David Lloyd Leisure Centre in Edinburgh has posted a memo to members urging them "not to use camera phones in the locker rooms".

Technology usually starts out large and clunky and develops into sleek and silent. However, when the first mobile phones with cameras were released in Japan, the camera was silent and it soon became evident that this could, and did, lead to the phones being used to take undignified photographs of unsuspecting ladies. When the next batch of cameras was released, they had the added feature of an easy-to-hear clicking noise when a photo was taken.

Even allowing for this, it can be difficult to establish whether or not your picture has been taken without your consent: and the time when it becomes clear could be when the image is used for an unlawful purpose.

In the workplace, video phones could be used to disseminate pornographic material, in instances of sexual harassment, or to copy commercially sensitive material.

While there are obligations on employers to tell their workers if they are using monitoring equipment and the Data Protection Code of Practice on CCTV requires such cameras to be signposted, there is no such requirement on an individual to make it clear when they have a video phone and, even more importantly, when they are using it.

More disturbing are the criminal implications of the use of video phones in connection with sexual crimes. Recently it was alleged that a rape in Brighton was filmed using video phones, which may lead to criminal charges against those who were said to have taken the images.

Camera phones are seen as a fun and an easy way to send photographs and images to friends, and the marketing for these products so far has been firmly targeted at the younger market. However, unlike a normal camera, the addition of the ability to send a picture instantly or post it on the internet, increases the temptation to use the pictures taken for inappropriate purposes.

While the quality of pictures taken can be poor (although it will improve), camera phones can be taken into areas where normal cameras may not go. When somebody is changing in the locker room at your health club and sending a text message, is that all they are doing?

Susan Calman is a solicitor with Shepherd & Wedderburn, specialising in intellectual property and IT law.

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