Japanese police are increasingly concerned about perverts using special smartphone applications to silently snap photos up women's skirts.
In Kanagawa Prefecure alone, 267 suspected voyeurs were arrested between January and November 2012 for taking intrusive photographs. Smartphones featured in 123 cases, prefectural police figures show, and 53 of the devices were operated using a "silent photo" application.
In late August in the same year, Kanagawa prefectural police arrested a 23-year-old graduate student after he allegedly took photos up the skirt of a 22-year-old woman while riding an escalator at a commercial complex in Yokohama's Totsuka Ward.
Police said the man had activated a silent photo app on his smartphone to make it capable of continuous shooting. He then placed the device beneath the skirt of the woman in front and took five pictures. The woman became aware only when the smartphone touched her thigh.
The man was held on suspicion of causing a public nuisance.
In August, Kyoto prefectural police arrested a contract worker allegedly observed doing the same thing on an escalator, and in September they seized a cook suspected of carrying it out at a store.
Even supposedly upstanding members of society are being caught.
In May, prosecutors received a file concerning a senior Aichi prefectural police officer suspected of taking photos up a woman's skirt. And an elementary-school teacher in Saga Prefecture and a junior high school teacher in Hyogo Prefecture were dismissed by disciplinary punishment in May and July, respectively, for allegedly snapping photos up the skirts of students earlier in the month.
In each case, it was not the victim but passers-by who noticed the photographer's actions, police said.
Regular cameras on cellphones and smartphones make an ersatz shutter sound, something that analysts say is designed to prevent their covert use.
But smartphones are by definition customizable, and among the many apps available are some that set the camera to work in silence.
The manufacturers usually say the app is suitable "for snapping babies and pets, subjects sensitive to noise" and "for taking photos at places like restaurants, where the shutter sound would disturb others."
But a senior investigator with the Kanagawa prefectural police said the latest apps are far more sophisticated—and ideal for sleazy law-breakers.
"Some apps switch off the screen while taking photos to mislead observers," the official said. "It is as if they were designed specifically for taking photos surreptitiously. The more smartphones spread, the more the number of voyeuring victims will increase."
A computer programmer in his 30s living in Tokyo is the vendor of a popular silent-camera app that he developed in the summer of 2011.
In a good month, the app receives about 1,000 paid downloads and about 8,000 free downloads, he said, adding that the numbers are rising.
He takes care to urge proper use. "Secret photography is a crime," his website declares.
Nevertheless, he believes some people will misuse it.
"I suspect some are using it for undercover picture-snapping," he said. "I am wondering whether I should remove the app."
Another developer with a similar product said he has no qualms about its use.
"It depends upon users' morals," he said. Accusing the developer "is like saying a kitchen knife is dangerous because it could kill a person."
Major cellphone carriers NTT Docomo Inc., KDD Corp. and SoftBank Mobile Corp. are aware of the problem, noting that they cannot control apps provided by other websites, but are urging people to use their apps as intended.
Masakatu Morii, a professor of information engineering at Kobe University graduate school, a specialist in cellphone science, says it is difficult to restrict camera use.
"Taking photos is one feature of smartphones, and there are people who legitimately want to take photos without making a shutter sound in public so they won't disturb others," Morii said.
"If such apps were designed with the express purpose of taking photos secretly, it would be a problem. But one cannot easily regulate apps just because they fail to make a shutter sound."
But he suggests one measure to dissuade the perverts.
"The government may have to consider discouraging illicit uses by imposing a serious penalty."
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