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The digital surveillance invasion

You always feel like somebody's watching you? That's because they are, says CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos.

The shrinking size and cost of digital cameras will make it possible to plant these devices nearly everywhere in the near future and allow people to surreptitiously photograph you hundreds of times a day, privacy advocates have warned.

But what they leave out is how crisp and clear these pictures will be.

Imagers, the pixilated chips that capture light and turn it into a digital photograph, are advancing rapidly, thanks to Moore's Law and clever engineering. Micron Technology, for instance, recently started producing an imager with pixels measuring 2.2 microns a side. The shrink is partly from having the pixels share some electronics; increased processing power also compensates for the photo defects that come from chip miniaturization.

By next year, the company will likely start shipping limited quantities of imagers with pixels measuring 1.7 microns a side. (A micron is a millionth of a meter--a human hair is 90 microns in diameter.)

As a result, more pixels will fit under those tiny 1.4-inch diameter lenses on cell phones. With the 1.7-micron pixel chips, a 3-megapixel camera phone with video will be a snap, costing only around $7 to $12 per handset.

"If you are going for a bigger lens, you can get a 5-megapixel camera phone," said Sandar Barna, the director of business development in Micron's imaging group. "The big manufacturers are going to push the cell phone to become a person's primary camera."

In all, that means greater depth perspective and more subtle color shading in those drunken postwork snapshots.

How you feel about the inevitable omnipresence of cameras and sensors, which can capture similar information, is one of the major personality tests in the technology world today.

Individuals have lived as if they were under observation since the dawn of cities.

One group immediately smells Big Brother. With cameras planted on phones--and eventually, on walls and street lights--police, federal agencies, corporations and our own personal enemies will be able to track us all as we go about our business. Forget about getting away with something: All the authorities will have to do to check your alibi is look at hours of stored video tape on your recent whereabouts.

Life will be like those prisons where inmates are monitored constantly with RFID.

Then there are those who see the all-seeing eye as handy. When you come back to the parking lot and see that your car has been rear-ended, a vibration-activated video camera integrated at the base of the rear window will have captured the license plate and face of the person who hit you.

Home watch
Interestingly, the pro-camera camp may be growing in size. WiLife, a Draper, Utah-based start-up, said it has already taken 100,000 pre-orders for its upcoming LukWerks, a motion-activated security camera for the home. The camera sends alerts and live video streams to the work PCs and cell phones of homeowners. It costs $299, and so far, customers on average are buying 2.5 cameras per order. The first LukWerks camera hits in December; and a less bulky, covert version of the camera is set to come out in 2006.

Crime prevention is a big part of the appeal, CEO Andrew Hartsfeld said at the Dow Jones Consumer Venture Conference this week in Redwood City, Calif. Every 15 seconds, a home burglary takes place in the U.S., while a car gets lifted every 25 seconds. And there are other reasons to buy. Nearly 23 million adults have to take care of aging parents. Rather than send them to rest homes, people want to hook up cameras and keep tabs on them from work.

Car manufacturers are also increasingly incorporating cameras to help drivers avoid collisions: The camera continuously films in the driver's blind spots and posts warnings if a collision seems imminent. Other companies, such as ParkingCarma, have kicked off experiments to deploy sensors to count available parking spots. If a parking lot has room, a message is sent to a circling driver, who can also reserve a spot.

Personally, I tend to be more pro-camera than not. Cameras that would film one's private moments--waxing the back hair of a loved one, for example--would truly be abhorrent. But the use of cameras in one's own home, or even a hotel, could be controlled. Beyond that, cameras could help in a lot of ways. I spend a good 1.25 hours a day looking for lost stuff, which would likely be reduced if I had a police-style pan-and-tilt video surveillance system.

Besides, how much criminal activity do most of us commit in a day that would lead us to be hauled in on charges? Generally, individuals have lived as if they were under observation since the dawn of cities. The average person will likely only draw the attention of the camera-watching authorities if they have unusual personality tics. "Look, there's that guy. He's doing that thing with his head again. It drives me nuts," one officer might say to another.

The biggest fear might be that private companies would try to exploit someone's fears. Hartsfeld pointed out that customers will be connecting through WiLife's servers every time they look at images coming from their security cameras.

"Shame on us if we aren't able to monetize that," he said.