Picture Phone Threats: They’re Not What You Think

Picture Phone Scans Barcode.In a story that couldn’t have been much better timed, ArsTechnica is reporting on a camera system from that reads license plates and automatically looks up vehicle registration details. With some glibness, the article claims: “You just drive around and point the camera — it’s that easy!” Though, it does note:

As previously unconnected networks and systems integrate, this will increasingly be the case, and as Scott McNeally said way back in 1999, when Sun Microsystems had a bright and shiny future, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it.” One can only hope that, should [this] technology expand onto the San Andreas map, Scott McNeally will be the first to surrender his anonymity.

The camera costs $25,000, but it’s more than over-priced at that. Amazon Japan has been offering a remarkably similar service since late 2004. No, they don’t let you stalk drivers, but they do help you look up product details by snapping a picture of a barcode on your camera phone. Their free phone software sends the barcode to Amazon’s servers which do the image processing to recognize the barcode and return price comparisons and product ratings.

The AARP has a surprisingly good story on camera phones. Their effect on shopping — including services like Amazon Japan’s — and law enforcement among other areas of human existance. In a small but meaningful nod to the difficulties created by technological change, the article adds:

As with most new technologies, there is also a downside to camera cell phones. Some critics are calling them a privacy menace as they are being used in bathrooms, locker rooms, and gyms. Art museums and others areas who ban photography are having trouble controlling the use of camera phones. Bookstores are struggling to crack down on the digital shoplifting that occurs when patrons photograph pages of books and magazines without paying for them. The speedy transmission of telephone photos enables confidential information to be stolen and immediately transmitted to an outside source. Also, as more and more personal information is stored in cell phones they become a hotter commodity for thieves who begin to see more value in the information (identity) stored in the phone, than the phone itself.

But what I haven’t read yet, are applications of picture phones in investigative fields. Parking authorities and police departments may be excited now about the $25,000 license plate camera, but how long is it before some company develops a picture phone service that does the same thing for $25 a pop to whoever will pay? While there are companies like ChoicePoint collecting and selling data like vehicle registrations, addresses, and buying habits, but few laws and very little regulation to control how that information is used, how can we imagine that it won’t happen?

Taking pictures in the locker room is one issue, but linking them with a global network and facial recognition is a much scarier issue. Sure privacy in the 21st century is a fading notion, but it’s not something we should give up without a fight.

[update:] Engadget reports that Omron Corp has developed picture phone-resident face recognition software.

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