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Privacy jam on California highway

A Web site that posts photos of carpool lane violators is taken offline after drawing rancor from critics.

The pictures show a driver peering angrily out his window at the photographer. In one, his middle finger is raised at the camera. In the last, his license plate is captured on digital film as he drives away.

These are the kinds of photos that until a few weeks ago made up the front page of a Web site called CarpoolCheats.org, where a pair of frustrated San Jose, Calif., commuters posted photos of single drivers who they spotted using the carpool lanes.

As highway vigilantism goes, it was mild. There were no legal repercussions for the drivers caught on film, and the state highway patrol, while aware of the site, can't use the information. But it drew enough rancor that creator Sean Mcintyre has temporarily closed the site down.

"CarpoolCheats.org website is temporarily out of service," the site's front door now tells visitors. "This is due to several threatening communications from an individual or individuals presently (but not for long) unknown to us."

Mcintyre's site, and others like it, hints at both the strengths and dangers of a future where digital photography is as close as everyone's pocket cell phone and where broadband Net connections, photo blogs and personal Web pages can give anyone a publishing platform.

Some worry about the creation of a "surveillance society," where a private citizen's every move is captured by video cameras or bystanders' personal cameras. Indeed, some gyms, courtrooms and other institutions have begun banning camera phones in order to preserve privacy.

Others see the increasingly ubiquitous technology as a way of correcting abuses, much as the filming of Rodney King's 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers prompted reform and the current photos of abuse in Iraq's prisons are prompting shock and soul-searching among American policymakers.

Mcintyre's site had no such lofty ambitions. But it sparked strong emotions both approving and criticizing while active.

He and his partner started the site after a particularly annoying driver tailgated and flashed his lights at them while they were driving in the carpool lane one morning last year. When they pulled over to let him by, they saw he was alone.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Somebody ought to have a Web site and post these clowns' pictures,'" Mcintyre said. "Then we realized, we're a couple of Web heads. We can just do it ourselves."

The pair doesn't use camera phones, which couldn't do photos that picked up people's faces and license plates, the San Jose computer worker said. Instead, they use a professional-quality digital camera and post what are sometimes embarrassingly clear photos of the carpool cheats. Other photographers have asked to post their own photos on the site, but Mcintyre said they don't accept others' work, since it can't be verified.

The tactic of shaming lawbreakers by posting information online is gaining ground. Earlier this year, Massachusetts and Rhode Island started posting the names of people who hadn't paid their taxes on a Web site.

The California Highway Patrol is relying on citizen action in a different way, asking people to report cars of California citizens who are registered in a different state, which is illegal. The program, which has only been in effect for three weeks, has already attracted 12,000 reports, a spokesman said.

The agency can't do much with Mcintyre's site, even if it comes back online, however.

"In order for us to actually take any enforcement action, we have to personally observe the violation," CHP spokesman Steve Kohler said.