Tiny cameras used to be the stuff of spy novels. Now they're everywhere, built into cell phones, digital organizers and other devices.
A little too everywhere.
The proliferation of Internet sites filled with pictures shot surreptitiously in public bathrooms, locker rooms and other places has prompted some schools to ban the phones, which are the most common devices with cameras. And lawmakers in such states as Iowa and Colorado are considering their own measures to protect against what you might call the candid camphone.
"It's part of the next step of society. Almost everything you do, there's a chance that somebody's going to be recording it," says Jim Barry, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group.
Already, some educators won't allow camera phones on school grounds. Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, calls the devices "a major concern." Several YMCAs and other athletic clubs also have begun insisting that members keep camera phones at home or in their cars.
"One would hope that general courtesy and common sense would make it unnecessary to post such a policy," says 29-year-old Debbie Goodson, a San Franciscan whose gym recently put signs about its ban in locker rooms. "I guess it's a reflection of the world we're living in today."
And it's not just schools and gyms that are worried about protecting privacy.
A sign at Bazooka's Showgirls, a club with nude dancers in Kansas City, Mo., states it clearly: "Fair warning -- digital video, picture cell phones will be confiscated and crushed with our sledgehammer!!!" Owner Dick Snow says he's respecting his employees' wishes not to be photographed.
"Have I smashed any phones with a sledgehammer?" he asks with a chuckle. "No. We just tell them to put them away."
Meanwhile, officials at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California have banned camera phones and other data transmission devices in classified areas. The Air Force has done the same.
And some experts have noticed that a few celebrities are making party guests check their phones or batteries to prevent photos from going public.
Sometimes, obvious attempts to take photos are noticed. But often, people have no idea they're being photographed.
One Web site allows visitors to rate shots of women's behinds, often taken in public places. The site touts itself as "the real reason mobile phones have cameras." Some phones make a shutter sound when a photo is shot, but often that sound can be disabled or muffled.
Other sites, including textamerica.com and Buzznet.com, allow people to post shots of just about anything -- pets to scenery.
It's a practice that only seems destined to grow.
The Consumer Electronics Association found that factory-to-dealer sales of camera phones grew from 1.2 million in 2001 to 6.3 million last year with estimates that last year's sales will double this year and triple in 2005. And many high-tech experts say it won't be long before phones with video are just as common.
"We're convinced the next Rodney King is going to be on a camera phone," says Greg Clayman, co-founder of Upoc Inc. The company's technology allows groups of cell users to exchange photos over their phones -- no need for Internet.
Some say it's all part of a trend known as "convergent journalism," allowing anyone to record life's events and share them with the world.
John Adams, visiting professor of rhetoric and communication at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., calls it "cellphonography." He's been using 20-second video clips taken on his cell phone to make points in class and also sends them to his wife and daughter when he's on business trips.
"I personally have had great fun," he says. But he adds, "You have to find new ways of engaging people's ethical and moral sensibilities so it's not a free-for-all." There are, in fact, plenty of ways camera phones have been helpful, including in police investigations.
People have used phones to capture images of everything from car license plates to would-be attackers, notes Emily Turrettini, editor for the site Picturephoning.com, a Web log that follows camera phone trends.
She believes awareness -- and wariness -- of camera phones and other devices will help thwart misuse: "As more people have them and are used to seeing them," she says, "it won't be such an issue anymore."