Encouraging Cameraphone Use -- For Less Than Encouraging Reasons
By Eric Lin, Tue Aug 31 00:00:00 GMT 2004

While many oppressive regimes have banned cameraphones, they can also be used as a tool of oppression.


Many oppressive regimes have banned citizens, and even visitors, from using cameraphones in their countries. The ruling parties are wary of the phones' ability to quickly snap and send a possibly incriminating picture. China, instead, has embraced mobile technology. It has been comfortable with the adoption of all types of handsets, so long as carriers preserve the ability for the government to censor messages, as it does for email as well.

Instead of banning them, Chinese authorities have creatively adapted cameraphones as yet another tool to control its citizens, if the latest allegations prove to be true. Authorities there reportedly threatened pro-democracy radio talk show hosts, after which they all quit. This didn't involve cameraphones until new reports emerged that authorities have contacted the families of callers to these shows still living on the mainland. They have been told to convince their relatives to vote for pro-Beijing candidates and then snap a picture of their ballots with a cameraphone to send back proof.

For all the attention cameraphones, or any mobile technologies receive for being "disruptive devices," it is important to remember that technology itself is neutral. Wireless devices can just as easily aid the oppressor as the freedom fighter. Giving citizens technology to prove their obedience or document the disobedience of others is an extension of classic totalitarian tools. Dictatorships and regimes since the dawn of history have encouraged citizens to spy on and report on one another. The fear of being caught in possible or flagrant violation of the ruling party is often a stronger deterrent when it is a neighbor and not just the government who might catch you. Now cellular technology can just as easily organize a protest against the government as prove that one took part in it.