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A young mother wandering the supermarket aisles in the town of Sammamish, near Seattle, Washington, felt a strange presence beside her. She later told a local newspaper reporter that she did not immediately understand what caused her to feel that something or someone was invading her privacy, but just as she turned into the next aisle another customer approached her and pointed out a young man who suddenly moved away from them. One might have surmised that he had been checking prices, but he had actually been busy trying to photograph upward, under the young woman's skirt.

A few minutes later, after the two women reported the incident to the management, the supermarket's doors were closed and the police were called. It turned out that the voyeur was a 20-year-old who was not equipped with a camera of the type used by private investigators, but rather with the latest model of cellular telephone. The new cell phones, which are currently starring in ad campaigns in Israel and around the world, have a tiny lens for taking digital color photographs.

This incident, however, is not representative of the phenomenon. Most voyeurs do not get caught, as a quick tour of Internet porn-voyeur sites will attest. The sites feature innumerable photos taken every day in dressing rooms, fitness clubs, and countless other mundane public places, without the subjects' knowledge. But whereas up until a year or so ago the peeping Toms used to brag on the sites about the equipment they used and how they disguised it, today they simply use their cell phones.

A beep instead of a click

Even though the camera cell phones are just beginning to make inroads in the Israeli market, in the rest of the world they have become the favorite of gadget lovers. Business Week reports that 64.9 million camera cell phones were sold in 2002, compared with 42.1 million regular digital cameras. The magazine's analyst predicted that by 2005 nearly twice as many people would own camera cell phones as digital cameras - 166.8 million versus 84.9 million. The Gartner international research company went even further in a report published last month, predicting that by 2007 almost everyone who owns a cell phone will be the proud owner of a digital camera incorporated into the phone.

In the United States, where 6 million camera cell phones were sold in 2003, legislative procedures have begun to deal with the problems created by this new technology. One Chicago suburb, for example, has enacted a bylaw forbidding the use of any type of cell phone in the local park. Other local authorities are considering similar legislation.

While American lawmakers chose to handle the problem by forbidding the use of camera cell phones in certain places, South Korean authorities took a different tack. In the home country of Samsung and LG Electronics, much of whose profits come from cell phones, these companies objected to a law forbidding the use of camera cell phones in certain places, claiming the law would hurt their business. The solution: All new camera cell phones will sound a very loud beep every time the camera is activated. Ironically, Samsung itself is known for its ban against any of its workers using camera cell phones on company premises.

Phones at the pool

In Israel, few people have noticed any problem or considered how to deal with it. At the swimming pools of Tel Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa, for example, or at the country clubs in Be'er Sheva or Holon, there is no ban on cell phone use in the dressing rooms. Moshe Gez, the manager of the pool at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, admits that he has not considered the matter either, but that if complaints are received, he may well hang a sign in the dressing rooms, forbidding the use of cell phones there.

Attorney Yuval Karniel, head of the academic track at the Management College says that the camera cell phones will eventually cause people to redefine the concept of privacy.

"People try to make laws that suit the original concept of privacy," says Karniel, but do not understand that we are in a new and different world. We live in a reality in which there are cameras photographing us every minute without our knowledge.

"When cell phones were first introduced," continues Karniel, "people were shocked that others were conducting conversations with them in public, but now, a few years later, we seem to have become accustomed to this. Privacy is a dynamic concept"

Karniel understands the sentiments of people who will be harmed by abuse of technology. Still, he says that legislation cannot stop progress or forbid the entry of cell phones to certain places.

"No legislation is required in order for places that sell entry tickets, such as museums, to forbid the entry of camera cell phones," says attorney Michal Birnhack, of the Center for Law and Technology at the Faculty of Law at Haifa University.