Everybody wants a camera phone. Everybody else wants to see them banned.

by Guy Kewney | posted on 08 October 2004

How likely is it, do you think, that someone would seriously compare corporate "ethics" injunctions in America, with the strictures of Saudi clerics? Watch, because here it comes: the common thread between the anti-female edicts of religious bigots and corporate nannies is, believe it or not, the mobile phone.

Guy Kewney

Both want to ban it.

The fact that something is banned is no guide to whether people do it, or not. So the news that Islam's "highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia" Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, has issued an edict against camera phones may be the death-blow to this technology. Then again, it may not be.

Equally, the news that American corporates have issued similarly pious statements about industrial espionage with camera-phones, and they too, have quoted the same urgent need to "protect women" from the things.

I've noticed that there are a lot of things which are very, very popular which are, also, illegal. Few of my friends can honestly say they've never smoked dope. Few of my married friends could insist that they've never shared a bed with anybody than their spouse, since their wedding. Theft, universally frowned on, is (of course) quite different from exaggerating your corporate expense claim - something nobody would do (of course) because the penalty would be instant dismissal.

If the Associated Press report on Sheick Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheick (yes, that seems to be an alternative spelling!) is correct, then it's the case that you are breaking the law if you own a camera phone in the Kingdom. It's also the case, notes the report, that if you have a satellite dish, you're breaking the law, and both laws look to be equally effective:

"Because of their popularity, the ban on camera cell phones could fizzle like a similar crackdown on satellite dish antennas."

Apparently, there is some kind of official ban - though it's not apparent that it's an actual law - on dishes. Not doing the dishes, no: satellite dishes. The campaign to eliminate them is some years in the past, based on religious opposition to films showing unveiled women.

The AP report says that the ban has failed. "Camera cell phones have caught on fast throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East, particularly in oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, prompting concerns about privacy in places where people undress, 'theft' of reading materials at bookstores and newsstands, and corporate espionage by employees."

Concerns - but of course, no effective action.

"Despite the ban, rooftops in every Saudi city are covered with them, and subscriptions to a variety of foreign channels are freely sold," reports AP.

The "corruption" and "obscenity" that the Saudi rulers say is caused by mobile phones with cameras on appears to be of genuine concern to some. Stories are told of women taking their camera phones into gatherings with other women - where, for some reason, women are allowed to go unveiled. And there is the tale of a young woman who was the centre of a brawl, if you can believe it, at a wedding, where she took photographs of fellow female guests in a state of dress which would get them arrested in the street.

Equally, I've been told tales of energetic young corporate sex fiends who have sent women up ladders, so as to photograph their legs from below, in offices and factories.

Both sets of tales are used to justify the ban on camera phones.

And then, of course, there's espionage. Clearly, there are Important State Secrets visible to the passerby on Saudi streets, which could be compromised if the photograph were sent to an Unfriendly Power. Equally, I might use my cameraphone to photocopy vital trade secrets from inside IBM's buildings and transmit them to Microsoft.

Well, let's see.

In two years' time, of course, it may well be the case that cellphones will have high resolution, capable of actually producing a photograph that allows the spy to tell what it was that was in the frame. Today, I doubt any useful data could be extracted from the photo; but that will come. And will the world then rush to stop using cameras?

Hardly. The convergence of the camera and the phone is going to be total.

OK, this is somewhat controversial stuff, and I know well-informed people who disagree with me. But my view is this: Nobody, in the year 2010, will be interested in a camera which can't phone home. It will have to be able to transmit its material - instantly - onto the Internet. Not just still pictures, but video.

I honestly expect the "video hat" to be commonplace. Everybody will have one, and they'll be sponsored by news agencies like AP, in the hope of having instant live feeds from bomb blasts, rail crashes, volcano eruptions, and inadvertent bosom exposures.

But personal photography will be almost entirely automatic. Photographs, taken without thought for cost, will be transferred to one's photo-blog, together with automatically generated commentary based on location, with voice annotation. The device which does this will be - what? a camera? a phone? a Personal Mobile Gateway?

It doesn't matter: the deed is done. As well attempt to ban marijuana, as ban photography. If bans are genuinely enforced, the only result will be to create a massive phone smuggling underground. And that's assuming that no new application for camera phones is discovered.

Well, we've already seen one possible seismic shock. The tidal wave from LogicaCMG's invention of the barcode scanner application for camera phones has yet to reach the shores of commercial awareness ... but I'll predict that when it does, it will swamp all the photo-moralists in a surge of insanely useful applications.

And will people continue to ban camera phones?

Of course. It's an instinct with us. "There ought to be a law against it" - it's our instant response to something we don't feel comfortable with.

Whether the law will do the slightest good, or even work, doesn't seem to matter.

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