Charles Arthur: 'Operators want people to use camera-phones to send photos to other users for oodles of money'

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The Independent Online

Who's afraid of the camera-phone? Plenty of people, it would seem. Samsung decided a few months ago to lighten visitors to its Far Eastern plants of these allegedly subversive items, apparently fearing industrial espionage in its research labs by people pretending to take phone calls and instead taking snaps of Breakthrough Product A and Unbelievable Innovation B. Sports clubs are, one hears, banning people from taking camera-phones into changing rooms, because people might take, you know, pictures. While one can see that were Diana, Princess of Wales alive today her choice of gym might be dictated by how effective its camera-phone screening system was, the rest of us will just have to muddle along somehow, given how prevalent mobile phones are, how difficult it is to tell whether they have a camera attachment, and how many are now being sold with said attachment.

Yet still they come. Last week a company called Iceberg Systems of Cheltenham announced a system "for controlling the use of camera phones to ensure privacy" from "camera phone voyeurs and spy's [sic]", apparently by establishing "wireless privacy zones". When you enter such a "privacy zone", a signal is sent to your mobile phone disabling the imaging function; nothing else is affected, the company says. Once the signal is absent, the imaging function comes back on. The system "can be integrated at the time of manufacture into new devices or installed as an update to suitable equipment already in the market."

Hold on: this works only if you, or your manufacturer or operator (or perhaps company that gives you your phone), opt in to having your mobile pre-emptively configured to be disabled by people you haven't met. How likely are the manufacturers to do this? Not very - it's hardly the sort of thing you would put in as an advertising tagline. Nor would the operators: they want more people taking photos so they can send them to other phones for oodles of money.

This abrupt, and not entirely believable, hysteria about the dangers of camera-phones and what people might use them for reminds me of a similar reaction to internet chatrooms about eight years ago. The fears applied, in fact, to e-mail, websites, newsgroups, online chat and, goodness, pictures.

What does this tell us? That not only does every new technology have both good and bad applications, but that we're better at guessing what the latter might be. (As for a good application of camera-phones: lone women taking a minicab home ostentatiously take a picture of the cab and driver and send it to their friends.)

We are also now starting to take pre-emptive action against "bad" uses - or perhaps it would be better to say, to market concepts that would constitute pre-emptive action. But that's rather like offering a program that, when installed on your computer, makes it impossible to write a virus. You can just see all the script kiddies rushing to download that one, can't you?

The more interesting battle that's going on over camera-phones is between the operators and the users. Look at the costs of sending a multimedia message: around 40p on Orange, for example, without regard to size. For a small picture, say 60 by 40 pixels, there's just no point. Nobody will be able to make sense of it at the other end. But 40p is a lot of money for sending something that size. Which has led some people to look at the alternatives: they've realised that if they have a GPRS subscription it's cheaper to e-mail the picture to the other person. Also, if it's big then they can view it on their computer, or just on their camera-phone, which of course can also do e-mail.

Given that phone operators are rarely smarter than a significant proportion of their customers, and that that significant proportion generally consists of people using the cutting-edge aspects of each operator's service, it's inevitable that people will discover the cheaper routes to getting their information across the network. And now, just as SMS became the cheaper method to communicate for owners of pay-as-you-go voice phones, e-mail is becoming the cheaper way to get phone messages sent. The operators may be looking at the statistics for multimedia messages sent and shaking their heads at peoples' refusal to embrace new technology, but it's happening, as SMS did, out of their sight.

Of course, if Iceberg Systems gets its way, we can all forget it anyway. Not only that - this technology (patent pending, and named "Safe Haven") "can simultaneously prevent the use of other types of wireless imaging devices including digital cameras, camera equipped PDAs or laptops, in a wireless privacy zone". Well, let joy be unconfined. A place where none of my favourite gadgets work? I'll be interested to hear what happens to this company's technology. But my suspicions are that it's not going to threaten "spy's" - or, indeed, voyeurs - any time soon.

Many thanks to those who wrote about my comment on how hard drive storage had risen compared with transistors on chips. I confused the matter by using the word "compounded". Ian Hobson of EMC2 (storage manufacturers) offered the best analysis, suggesting that hard drives double in capacity every 12 months - slightly better than processors.