Spy Phones

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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