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Snap photo first, answer questions later

Research photos lead to terror suspicions for physician developing assistive technologies for the blind.

A physician who says he photographed an AT&T office as part of a research project to develop assistive technologies for the blind is now being targeted for questioning by the FBI.

Stefanos Pantagis, a geriatric specialist at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said he took the photos while driving in Manhattan on Sept. 4 and was surprised to learn Monday that counterterrorism agents wanted to interview him about them.

"My brother called me, hysterical, saying, 'The FBI has been looking for you,'" said Pantagis, who had borrowed a family member's car that day. "They researched who had been driving the car."

Pantagis said he and a friend "were conducting eyetap research for the visually impaired. The idea was to develop a filming system for the visually impaired."

The FBI's New Jersey office confirmed that the bureau had asked for a meeting with Pantagis but described it as routine. "We're constantly doing this," said Steve Kodak, a spokesman for the FBI's Newark division. "We get tips that range everywhere from 50 to 80 a day that people consider suspicious activity. It's the job of the joint terrorism task force to follow up on everything."

Kodak said that since Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI now follows up on every tip that they receive. "You never know where the next tip that's going to prevent a terrorist attack is going to come from," he said.

Steve Mann, a University of Toronto researcher into cyborg technologies, said he has been exchanging ideas for months with Pantagis about vision-augmenting techniques. Mann pioneered the "EyeTap" project, which is designed to augment human vision with eyeglasses implanted with cameras and computer screens that process images from the outside world but add additional information to create "mediated reality." Future EyeTap versions could block out advertisements, recognize faces or help people with impaired vision to see clearly.

Pantagis speculated that the FBI's interest might also be related to his participation a few days earlier with John Perry Barlow's "" flash mob-style protest during the Republican convention. Barlow, a co-founder of the , had organized a dancing-in-the-streets protest against President Bush, in which he and other activists gyrated to tunes from bands like ZZ Top.

FBI counterterrorism agents wanted to come to Pantagis' home Monday at 4 p.m. PDT, he said, but they never showed up. Meanwhile, Pantagis has been in touch with the New York affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the three years since the attacks on Sept 11, 2001, hobbyist photographers are being viewed with increasing suspicion by police, especially in New York and near bridges or dams. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in July that a man was interrogated and photographed by a Department of Homeland Security agent for photographing a well-known railroad bridge.

The National Press Photographers Association, the New York Press Photographers Association and other journalist groups are to overturn a ban on photography in the New York subway system.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press went so far as to create a flier--describing what to do if arrested--for photojournalists and other reporters covering the Democratic National Convention in Boston.