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U.K. fears camera phones’ use by pedophiles

Swimming pools and recreation facilities around the United Kingdom have banned the use of cellular phones with cameras to prevent pedophiles from photographing half naked children in changing rooms.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Advances in cellphone technology have spurred an insidious new threat — the use of the increasingly popular camera phones by pedophiles to photograph children. Across Britain, swimming pools and sports facilities have cracked down on their use while the YMCA in the Australian state of Victoria has also imposed a ban. Officials have yet to raise a clamor in the United States, where the devices have only recently become widely available.

U.K. parents and child protection agencies say they worry that pedophiles will use the state-of-the-art camera phones to surreptitiously photograph children in changing rooms, instantly mailing the pictures around the world or posting them on pornographic websites.

Britain’s Home Office, the country’s main policing body, joined recreation and child protection agencies recently issued a guidance statement warning of the potential risks involved with the new technology.

Sport facilities across the country have since addressed the issue and many have decided to put up signs alerting the public that camera phones are banned on their premises.

“There was an incident in one center. No-one had realized the potential threat (of camera phones) before, but the huge potential from the one incident alerted us to what could be a significant problem,” said Ralph Riley, director of the privately run Institute of Sport and Recreation Management.

Riley declined to give details of the incident. He added that people have always been asked to use traditional and digital cameras “with discretion in a swimming pool” and that photography will continue to be allowed with special permission.

Meanwhile, a local authority the area of Manchester in northwest England has issued a statement that anyone wishing to use any camera, including camera phones, will have “on their person a visible sticker authorizing consent if challenged by a member of staff or public.”

BAN NOT EASY TO ENFORCE

InsertArt(1978168)Though few disagree with the ban, most agree that its enforcement will not be easy. Unless swimmers spot the culprit eye-to-eye, the sound produced by the click of the camera’s simulated shutter would likely be drowned out by youngsters’ shouts resonating through tiled changing rooms.

A spokesman for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said pool patrons should “leave such phones at reception,” and that “there should also be designated and trained members of staff to help people to report their concerns if they see someone taking a picture.”

Concerns have spread around the world. In Australia, the YMCA of Sydney rejected a push to accept the ban because it was deemed too difficult to enforce. Sydney’s decision was taken despite a ban now in effect for the 110 YMCA facilities in the state of Victoria, and after a man pleaded guilty to filming young girls in a pool changing room in Melbourne.

In Asia, a fitness club with nine gyms in Hong Kong recently posted signs forbidding the use of camera phones in its locker rooms. And in nearby Macau, the devices have come under scrutiny in casinos and will likely be banned soon, according to media reports.

SCRAMBLING THE SIGNAL

A costly, futuristic way of preventing pedophile photographers would involve scrambling radio signals so that cellular phones could not be used at all in changing areas.

Japan and Australia have allowed such systems, known as GSM jamming, to prevent noisy interruptions at venues such as theaters.

However, jamming systems are illegal in Britain and can disturb emergency communication signals. They may also have an impact on cellular phone usage in proximity to the designated area.

“With the introduction of new developments, such as wall-lining materials which significantly reduce the power of radio signals (recently tried in Japan), it may be possible to avoid using jamming devices and localize areas to be mobile (cellular)-free,” said Tom Perrott, director, of TNS Telecoms, a telecommunications information company, in a press release on the TNS website.

However, such legislation could break the bank for most cell phone operators.

CAMERA PHONES IN CRIMINAL ACTS

Primarily due to the limited availability of camera phones, the vast majority of countries have not considered the ban.

Local recreation officials have raised the issue in Boulder, Colo., but the ban has not been discussed at a national level in the United States.

“That’s the very first I’ve heard of it,” said Lili McGovern, manager of aquatic services for the National Recreation and Park Association.

“I don’t know that cell phones with cameras are that widely used right now (in the United States). I believe cell technology is more advanced in Europe and Asia than here.”

Experts say that as the use of camera phones becomes more widespread, their involvement in criminal activity will likely increase.

Police in southern England are currently investigating a case in which bystanders allegedly used a video-equipped cell phone to film the rape of a woman in a bar bathroom. Questions are also being raised concerning the use of similar technology in strip clubs.

“On the flip side there are plenty of examples of positive use,” said Toby Robson, senior press officer for Vodafone, a cellular telecommunications company.

For example, “doctors can use camera phones to send x-rays (to specialists) and receive information on them right away.”

“Our message is that technology has to be used responsibly,” said Robson.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has decided that the risk camera phones present outweighs their benefit and has adopted a simple prevention plan: Saudi authorities have banned the devices from the kingdom altogether.

MSNBC.com’s Jennifer Carlile is based in London.