Mobile phones: The home invader
Mobile phones can be a useful safety device for children, but also make them vulnerable.
by Chris Barton
Whoever thought it was a good idea to equip mobile phones with cameras probably didn’t anticipate people taking photographs of their genitals and transmitting the images to websites for all to see.
But having places on the internet where people could send and publish – “post” – instant images taken with camera phones, was always part of the plan. They’re known as “moblogs” and most are innocuous – homes for electronic albums of family, pets, holidays, gatherings, and the like. Plus the weird craze of the moment in “drive-by shootings” – photos of buildings, roadsides, scenery or anything else one drives by.
But there are also a few moblogs where people have used the technology for less wholesome things – like the aforementioned instant DIY porn. Sick exhibitionists? Undoubtedly. But such sites also represent the avant-garde of mobile phone use – creativity gone mad when it comes to what one can do with a fledgling technology. Why? Because they can.
Surprising, new uses for mobiles are cropping up all time. Like the gang member in an Auckland District Court seen last week using a camera phone to photograph members of the jury. The judge was not impressed and immediately had the jury taken to a secret location.
The behaviour also has court officials and Government ministers wondering whether the incident represents a new tactic for causing mistrials – and whether mobile phones should be banned in court. Besides the spectre of pornographic postings and juror intimidation, other mobile phone behaviours may give parents pause for thought if they’re considering buying their daughter or son the latest in mobile gadgetry this Christmas.
Internet Safety Group (Netsafe) director Liz Butterfield talks of incidents where schoolchildren have been photographed with camera phones in changing rooms by their peers. And of how those photos (pxts) are passed around from phone to phone, or worse still, put on websites.
The behaviour is an extension of so called cyber-bullying where denigrating text messages (txts) are sent (sometimes bombarded) to children’s phones. The results can be devastating – as in the case of Oamaru teenager Daniel Gillies who fell down a cliff to his death last year.
“My son is dead and those text messages were a significant factor in that,” Daniel’s mother Helen Algar told a Sunday newspaper, convinced her son killed himself because of the bullying texts. “Text messaging can be a potent weapon.”
It’s a weapon adults are quick to use too. “We are seeing an increase in domestic violence-related abuse being conducted through mobile phones,” says policing development group senior researcher and e-crime co-ordinator Judith Jefferson. Mostly that’s people breaking protection orders by texting messages to those under protection. But the Herald has been told of a case where “you are going to burn **** you” was sent to a close friend of a person under a protection order. The texter, knowing the message would be passed on, was engaging in harassment by proxy.
Then there’s the incident of indecent photographs taken in Nelson on New Year’s Eve of seemingly intoxicated and partially dressed teenagers without their consent. The photos were possibly also distributed by email or posted on websites.
Camera phones are also helping exam cheats who, as well as texting answers to themselves or others, can now photograph answers to send them on. And concerns about paedophiles and perverts using camera phones in changing rooms prompted Wellington City Council to ban mobiles at its public pools.
All of the above behaviour, whether lawful or unlawful, is made possible on the phone by something called convergence. It’s when a vast digital melting pot of telecommunications, computers and media morphs into something new and fabulous. In mobiles it’s the coalescing of phone, camera and internet (and in some cases radio, TV, and digital recorder and player). With a “converged” mobile, the user is reader, writer, viewer, photographer and publisher in one. Not to mention the potential to be pornographer, delinquent, deviant and thug.
Butterfield argues all the behaviours pre-date the technology. That txt-bullying for example is just a new form of an old impulse – “to scrawl someone’s name with a nasty comment on the wall of the boys’ or girls’ toilet”. But she agrees the instantaneous nature of what can be done and global publication brings a new dimension.
“What is different is that there is a new scale with these technologies and there’s a new speed with which things can happen.” Some suggest also the nature of text messages amplifies the opportunity for rash and rude communication that wouldn’t happen with face-to-face dialogue.
In the sure knowledge the technology is not going to go away, and in the understanding of how much mobiles appeal to youth culture, Butterfield promotes education – preparing children to be safe and responsible – as the way forward. She’s also in favour of sensible school policies to restrict mobile use during school hours or exams, but against total bans.
“If you ban them, then for children who are dropped off early to school or stay late for after-school activities, you’re denying them a good safety device.”
Which makes the mobile a double-edged blade. On one side it promises to protect – providing a means for children to get help and for parents to know where their children are. But on the other side, the mobile is an open electronic gateway to vice and victimisation.
Despite studies which show how important mobiles and texting are to teenagers in conducting their social lives, Jefferson says many of the older generation don’t appreciate “the centrality” of mobile technology. Recent research from Victoria University for example showed some teenagers sleep with their phones to make sure they’re available to respond to messages. Being without a phone and the connectivity it brings is not an option.
“Some parents have described it to me as: ‘You would think their head was going to be cut off if you took their phone away from them’,” says Jefferson.
She says the young have a different attitude in the way they accept and readily use technology. “Given their different perspective, there is the potential for different criminal activities to occur, that we are not aware of.”
But there’s also the potential for adults to use the technology to exploit the naivety of children. When it was revealed in October that mobile text chat services may be exposing children to predatory behaviour by paedophiles, the Teenzone and Sexy TXT chat rooms were shutdown.
The revelation also prompted associate minister of communications David Cunliffe to call on Telecom and Vodafone representatives to hammer out a code of practice for handling age verification of chat room participants, guidelines for monitoring chat rooms and for what content that might be permissible or not.
Cunliffe had hoped for a draft code by Christmas but has been told by the Telecommunications Carriers Forum it needs another six months. “My message to the TCF is ‘good work, go faster’. Six months is a long time for parents to be worrying that their children are exposed to stuff that they shouldn’t be.”
In reality parents are going to be waiting a lot longer. Legislation to deal with some of the more obvious dangers of camera phones – the Intimate Covert Filming Bill – is due to be introduced to Parliament next year. That means it will be at least a year before it’s actually illegal to make, publish or possess “a voyeuristic recording”.
In focusing on behaviour, the bill shies away from technological solutions suggested in other countries – such as requiring camera phones to employ an audible click and flash when taking a picture. And while Vodafone and Telecom have procedures in place for dealing with those who send abusive or harassing txts or pxts, both are in no hurry to sort out age-verification for chat room access. Although two chat rooms have been shut, both continue to run many and lucrative dating and adult chat rooms where mobile equipped children can easily gain access.
“The first option is for the industry to regulate itself in a responsible way,” says Cunliffe. “If we’re not satisfied that public safety is protected in that way, then we’ll look at what else we can do.”
But with mobile phones able to get unrestricted access to the internet and more convergence sure to arrive soon, Cunliffe agrees there’s a limit to what legislation can do.
“When we get 3G [mobile videophones] teenage boys are going to get hardcore videos on their mobile phones and that’s going to be very difficult.”
Like Butterfield he advocates education about responsible use. But with many parents already perplexed about their own mobile phone use and asking their kids for help, just who will be teaching who?
They’re watching you
Many mobile phone users – particularly those on prepaid plans – believe they’re anonymous while using a mobile phone. To some extent that’s true, but the phone number is always traceable and both Vodafone and Telecom keep logs of txt and pxt messages for between one and two weeks. Numbers found to be sending abusive or harassing messages can also be disconnected from the network and in some cases the handset itself can be disabled.
All telecommunications networks are required to be interceptable under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act which means police, through interception warrants, are able to tap mobile phone calls, and intercept txt and pxt messages.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
This is covered by the Harassment Act and becomes a criminal offence if the message threatens life or safety. For other types of messages, recipients can seek a protection order from the court if there have been at least two instances of harassing behaviour over a fixed period of time. Vodafone and Telecom each has procedures for dealing with txt bullying which begins with warnings to the sender and, in some cases, contacting parents. If the offending persists the sender’s phone can be refused access to the network. Users are advised never to respond to abusive or threatening messages. More information at www.netsafe.org.nz.
Covered by the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification and Privacy Acts and other criminal laws, but due to be specifically dealt with by the Intimate Covert Filming Bill expected in parliament in the new year. The bill creates three new offences – making, publishing and possession of a voyeuristic recording. The key threshold of the new laws is whether the visual recording was done without consent and whether it was done in circumstances that would reasonably be expected to provide privacy.
Covered by the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act in relation to making and distributing objectionable publications. Jurisdictional issues in relation to the publication of objectionable material on overseas websites have yet to be tested.
Mostly not permitted under the Gambling Act, but text messaging promotions are allowed if they meet the tests for a sales promotion. The contest must be used to promote the sale of products or services, customers must buy the goods or services being promoted at the standard retail rate, cannot be charged any direct or indirect consideration, and the outcome must be determined by chance.
Covered by the Crimes Act. As mobile phones are used more as “electronic wallets” to make purchases and for online banking, they become sites for fraud and forgery offences and users run the risk of identity theft.
Covered by the Crimes Act. In criminologist jargon, mobile phones pass the “Craved” test. That is, they’re concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable, and as such are a target for thieves. Unlike Australia, New Zealand doesn’t yet have a law that makes it a criminal offence to “rebirth” stolen mobile phones by illegally modifying a phone’s electronic serial number.