Should Silent Camera Phones Be Illegal?

New bill would require cell phones to click when a photo is taken.

January 28, 2009, 3:03 PM

— -- Could a simple sound stop a predator?

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., seems to think so.

The congressman has introduced the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act, which would require cell phones with built-in digital cameras to make a sound when a picture is taken.

"Congress finds that children and adolescents have been exploited by photographs taken in dressing rooms and public places with the use of a camera phone," according to King's bill, introduced earlier this month.

By mandating phones that click or "sound a tone" whenever a photo is taken, King, the sole sponsor of the bill, hopes to address this.

"Camera phone technology has become another one of the many avenues through which child predators prey on children, and I believe we must do all we can to deter this behavior and protect the children in our communities," King said in an e-mail to "I introduced the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act so that parents and children can be alerted when these criminals try to exploit our children in public places."

Despite King's good intentions, some experts argue this bill is sorely misguided.

"This seems to be a solution in search of a problem," said Sascha Segan, lead analyst for mobile devices at PCMag Digital Network. "I haven't seen any reputable source saying that there's a major problem with secretly taking dirty camera phone photos [in the United States]."

In Japan and Korea, Segan pointed out, in response to mounting reports of "underskirting," governments have passed laws similar to the one King proposes.

On extremely crowded trains in those countries, men would hold their camera phones under women's skirts and snap away. "Downblousing," which involves similarly intrusive picture-taking, has also been a problem, experts said.

But despite the ubiquity of camera phones (according to market research firm NPD Group, 83 percent of the cell phones sold in 2008 had built-in cameras), these issues seem to be unique to Japanese and Korean society, Segan said

When contacted several child safety organizations, none of them could point to quantitative research demonstrating that silent camera phones pose a serious threat to public safety.

Regardless, the Long Island, N.Y.-based victim's rights group that worked with King on his bill said that the anecdotal evidence provides enough support for this kind of legislation.

"Common sense and anecdotal evidence across our nation demonstrates the need for the federal government to enact the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act," Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Victims Center, told

An Internet search for upskirt photos, she said, proves that Peeping Toms are taking photos of unsuspecting victims and posting collections of the stealth images online.

At a local mall in 2007, two voyeurs armed with camera phones reportedly photographed young girls while they were shopping with their mothers. In another case in New Jersey, an individual was caught sliding a camera phone under dressing room doors to snap pictures.

Because camera phones are so unsuspecting, they need particular attention, supporters of the bill say.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also could not pinpoint formal research on the topic but said the bill could be a step in the right direction.

"I don't think that any legislative fix in this area will be the silver bullet," Michelle Collins, executive director of the exploited child division of the group, told "But if it raises the awareness of individuals who may unwittingly be victims, then it may be a positive thing."

Collins said she knew of several instances in which digital cameras, hidden in duffle bags and bathrooms, had captured photos of unknowing subjects. But she said that camera phones and regular digital cameras had been the culprits in those cases.

And this, some say, highlights another key flaw in King's proposal: It targets cell phone cameras but excludes regular, old digital cameras that can also be used for sinister purposes.

"Cameras aren't included in this bill … and some cameras are smaller than buttons," Alan Reiter, a wireless industry analyst, told

He didn't dismiss that people are using camera phones to take inappropriate pictures but said, "The fact is, if you really want to take a photo of someone there are devices out there that will let you do it."

Cell phone companies could easily make phones to fit King's standard, Reiter said. Research In Motion, the company behind the BlackBerry, already makes phones with cameras with a click that cannot be muted. Because the company targets business-oriented consumers, Reiter said it was concerned that people could use the camera to take inappropriate photographs of their workplaces.

But, in some cases, such as weddings and other special events, consumers want camera phones that can be silenced, he said.

And safety experts said that quiet camera phones sometimes help people stealthily photograph criminals in the act. A clicking phone could potentially put victims and good samaritans in harms way.

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