Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Smile! You're On Candid Camera.

An Information Technology Crime Law was approved this week which will make “infringement of privacy by misusing [a] phone camera [a crime] punishable by one-year imprisonment and/or SR500,000 fine.” Not a piddling little amount, there! 500,000 Saudi Riyals is the equivalent of $134,048.25. The penalty for “hacking a web site” will be the same as misusing a “phone camera” under the new law. As well “a person who establishes a website for terrorist organizations or publishes anything facilitating contracts between leaders of terror organizations or advocating their ideologies” will be given a prison term of no more than 10 years and/or fined up to SR5,000,000 [$1,340,482.57].

Just a few short years ago, camera phones were banned in The Sandbox by the Commission for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice amid concerns that “wicked people might misuse the device.” Consider the word “B A N,” its anagram is “N A B.” And, as is human nature, as soon as there is a “ban” on something the first thing you are wont to do is “nab” whatever that item is. [Random House Unabridged Dictionary’s third definition for the word “nab” is: to snatch or steal.] That, of course, is exactly what happened, everyone wanted to “nab” one and the banned camera phones were selling like hot cakes despite the intensified crackdown of the “Powers That Be” to eliminate them. Customs authorities encouraged employees to seize the “camera-equipped mobile phones” rewarding them with prizes and incentives for confiscating the phones as they entered the Country. In December of 2004, the ban on camera phone was overturned.

Miscreants abound and the camera phones continue to spark controversy. These sordid little digital and technological wonders are often the scourge in situations that escalate to fisticuffs. Camera phones have caused a fight at a nursery school, have been the subject of complaints by parents at girls’ schools, and are frequently the reason that chaos and brawls erupt at women-only parties. It is not uncommon to read newspaper accounts of weddings where a camera phone leads to a bride punching one of her guests for taking a photo, or a scuffle at a wedding so violent that guests were hospitalized, or of a group of women that transformed a wedding into a "wrestling arena" where five police cars were called to the scene, or of this wedding involving more than twenty women fighting that also required police intervention. In one instance, a Tribal punishment was issued at a wedding and the father of the girl caught taking photos was fined! One groom, distraught over the “improper” attire women had worn to his engagement party, included on the wedding invitation the following: "Warning, camera cell phones inside the wedding hall."

According to at least one account women are refusing to attend parties and wedding celebrations “fearing [that] other guests may use a cell phone camera … to take their pictures and distribute the images over the Internet.” My gosh. The horror that this must instill! Unimaginable. Um Abdul Rahman states, “My friend got divorced because her picture was circulated on e-mails. Her picture was taken inside a wedding hall in Jeddah. Her husband blamed her for the incident and divorced her.” As good a reason to initiate a divorce as any other reason, I guess [not!]. After ten years of marriage and five children, the fact that this man's wife owned a camera phone resulted in their divorce. One marriage was never even consummated when the prospective groom learned that a relative of his bride-to-be snuck a camera phone into the ceremony and took photos.

Occasionally the camera phones truly have been misused by “wicked people” with evidence of misdeeds being recorded and stored on their mobiles. In July of 2003, two young Saudi men were arrested for orchestrating and filming a sexual assault on a 17-year old girl by a Nigerian driver. In January of 2005, the three men involved, dubbed the Panda gang were sentenced: The main defendant to 12 years of imprisonment and 1,200 lashes, his compatriot received a prison term of two years and 200 lashes, and the driver [who actually appeared in the film] received a sentence of 6 years imprisonment and 600 lashes.

Regardless of stiff punishments and laws to discourage camera phone misuse, several months later a video clip of two Saudi girls being harassed by four young men triggered public outrage. The four men were indicted for sexual harassment after confessing that they did not know the girls before the incident and that they deliberately distributed the video clip of the incident using both the Internet and Bluetooth.

Whether the new law will serve to deter misuse of camera phones, along with its other intended purposes, remains to be seen – and as the law is only a couple of days old it is too soon to pass judgment. If the system – or complete lack thereof – by which traffic laws are enforced in The Sandbox are any indication as to how the Information Technology Crime Law will be enforced, reports of camera phones being used by “wicked people” will remain status quo.
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