Spy Phones

With cell phones, surveillance is as easy as the press of a button


| May 11, 2006


Americans are addicted to their cell phones. What began as a convenience has become an outright necessity. The Pew Research Center estimates that 66 percent of Americans own cell phones, and that number is increasing. More than half of cell phone owners surveyed by Pew leave their phones on all the time, and many are giving up their landlines to become entirely dependent on cellular technology. Chances are that you have a cell phone in your pocket right now, and it may have come with unintended consequences. Social activists and civil rights experts are fearful that the ever-expanding use of cell phones -- especially those equipped with cameras -- is chipping away at personal space and privacy.

How cell phones became conflated with cameras is somewhat of a mystery. Early camera phone distributors weren't even sure they would sell, but now it's difficult to find a new cell phone without a camera built in. Scott Duke Harris of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that more than 233 million camera phones were distributed throughout the world in 2004. The phenomenon has helped fuel the emergence of citizen journalism, where everyone with a cell phone can make a mark on the media. 'Camera phones are just one more hand grenade that the media revolution has tossed into the peaceful campfire of mainstream media,' Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, tells Harris. And the phones are great sources for the paparazzi, too: When a celebrity gets drunk and makes a scene, bystanders can snap a picture and post it on the internet. There's even a website called Scoopt that encourages people to sell their camera phone images to the press.

The creators of Holla Back NYC have tried to harness this technology for good. The website encourages women to photograph sexual harassers and post the photos for the world to see. The site prominently features people pointing their camera phones at the viewer, glorifying the 'Cell Phone Vigilantes' who fight back against their alleged sexual harassers. But as Kathryn Belgiorno of The Village Voice points out, sites like this put an enormous amount of faith in the photographer. The pictures are free of context, and viewers are led to assume sexual harassment when the situation might not be as it seems. Even if the photos are represented truthfully, anti-surveillance activist Bill Brown says, 'You're opening the floodgates to a universal degradation, reinforcing mutual suspicion and paranoia.'

But snapping photos may be the least of society's problems. When Darryl Littlejohn was arrested for murder last year, police used his cell phone records to catch him. Terry Allen of In These Times calls attention to a New York Daily News investigative report showing that Littlejohn didn't even need to make a phone call to alert the authorities to where he was. Instead, police used a series of 'pings' -- computer reachability tests -- that were stored by T-Mobile and later retrieved by the police.

The case is troubling for many civil rights activists and security experts. If technology enables authorities to find out the location of murderers, it's not a stretch to think it could be turned on innocent citizens. The information could be given to government agencies for investigations, or even to businesses for profit. Websites such as Best People Search already offer background checks and reverse cell phone searches for anyone willing to pay the fee. As internet security expert Bruce Schneier tells Allen: 'Verizon and the other companies have access to that information and the odds are zero that they wouldn't sell it if it is legal and profitable. This is capitalism after all.'

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