FEATURE-Hello? Smile, you're on candid camera phone


By Judy Lee

SEOUL, July 29 (Reuters) - The phrase "victim of your own success" springs to mind.

Easily concealable camera-equipped mobile phones are no longer welcome in the offices of South Korea's high-tech companies because of worries about industrial spies.

Hyundai Motor , South Korea's largest automaker and one of the global top 10, is afraid its new model cars under development could be leaked to rivals.

"We are setting up X-ray detectors at the gates of Namyang R&D centre to block the entry of camera phones and also establish a system to trace visitors," said Jake Jang, a Hyundai spokesman, referring to the company's research complex near Seoul.

"It is a critical matter for a company like us, because mobile phones can be used for spying, like one of those gizmos secret agent '007' uses," he said, referring to film spy James Bond.

In its headquarters building as well, meetings for major strategies, new design and colour schemes bar the use and presence of multi-function mobiles, a Hyundai official said.

Samsung Electronics Co , the world's third-largest mobile phone maker and a pioneer of the very technology that stuck a tiny lens on a small handset, has also banned them inside its office corridors and factory floors.

"It is unavoidable for security reasons," said a Samsung official who asked not to be named. "Camera phones are handy and the quality is so good it can be easily used for industrial espionage."

Samsung -- which has a 10-percent share in the global mobile phone market -- is not the only phone maker to become camera-shy.

Rival LG Electronics Co faces the same dilemma in a gadget-crazy country where three quarters of its 48 million people carry at least one mobile phone.


Over the past year, South Koreans alone snapped up more than four million camera-equipped phones and it is a common sight to see people taking pictures of their friends, themselves and just about anything else in view.

And that has raised privacy issues, as well. One woman used her camera phone to take photos of naked women in one of South Korea's popular public sauna baths and then sold them to website operators.

Concerned about a public uproar over such misuse, authorities are seeking to put wider limits on camera phones in some places. The country's parliament, the National Assembly, may step in.

"Several committee members are trying to enact legislation on the use of camera phones," Lee Wook-hee, an official at the National Assembly's telecommunications committee, told Reuters.

"Mobile phones are indispensable in the modern age, but I guess everything has a flip side."

Camera phones cost between 400,000 won ($336) and 600,000 won in South Korea, about a third of the country's average monthly household income. Still, their popularity is rapidly soaring, especially among young people.

Since their launch in August, 2001 in the local market, the use of camera phones has been spreading at an "explosive" pace, said Kwon Chul-keun, a spokesman of SK Telecom Co , the country's largest mobile carrier, without giving detailed data.


In South Korea, where people change their mobile phones every two years on average, already one-fifth of mobile phones in use are equipped with a camera, industry sources said.

SK, which has more than 50 percent of the country's mobile phone market, said the ratio of camera phones to regular mobiles among its clients has soared over the past 12 months.

Technology innovations have made many fictional "007" tasks of the past a reality these days. And now South Korea is gearing up for moving as well as still images.

The latest mobile phones offer not only communications but also video camera functions, MP3, access to the Internet and live television shows as well as settlements of transactions.

"A mobile phone can even show you how to get to your destination, for example, the closest gas station or whatever," said Lee Sang-chul, a 37-year-old businessman who pays an average $200 in mobile phone charges a month. "There are so many cool functions. It's part of my life."

Moon Ae-ran, a 50-year-old homemaker living in an upmarket apartment complex in the southern Seoul, also enjoys the convenience of her high-tech device. She can turn on a washing machine and other home appliances with her mobile phone even when she is out shopping.

"How can I live without this thing?" Moon said. ($1=1190.5 won)



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