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Camera phones roiling gyms

They are already banned in "quiet cars" on Amtrak and in New York City theaters and music halls. Soon, the increasingly ubiquitous cellphone may be banished from your local health club.

The reason: the surprising growth of cellular phones with built-in digital cameras. Just months after they first became an American mass-market phenomenon, these units are triggering fears that they could be widely abused as "spy cams," leading some health-club chains to ban them from locker rooms where wireless voyeurs could snap compromising photos of patrons.

The Wellbridge Health and Fitness Center chain, which operates four clubs in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton, slapped a ban on wireless camera phones this summer, as has San Francisco-based 24 Hour Fitness. Town Sports International, parent company of Boston Sports Clubs, restricts use of any cellphones to lobbies and stairwells. Other local clubs that already discourage use of cellphones in workout rooms, including the Boston Athletic Club in South Boston and Cambridge Racquet & Fitness Club, are considering strengthening policies to specifically forbid camera phones.

The camera phones are generating so much alarm because of how widely owned and used they have rapidly become -- and because the images they capture can be sent from the phone to the Internet in seconds.

"I've had people at work who have the phones showing you pictures of yourself that they took, and they never told you they were doing it," said Joe England, a 45-year-old longshoreman from Quincy working out at the Boston Athletic Club yesterday. "They're pretty discreet, and there's no flash. It looks like they're pushing a button to make a phone call."

"The disgusting part is that they can send your picture anywhere on the Internet," England added, although he joked that any clandestine phone picture of himself would make it only to "not-a-porn-star.com."

"I think it's something that you have to worry about," said Kathleen Perkins of South Boston as she got ready to work out. "There could be total creeps."

The Boston Athletic Club's general manager, Patti Daly, said she has had enough current and prospective members ask what the 3,200-member club is doing to restrict camera phones that she is "taking a serious look at developing a strong policy."

Dan Zawadski, 25, a restaurant worker from South Boston and club member, said, "It's nothing I've ever encountered, and I don't think it's really that prevalent a technology yet. But I can see the issues involved."

Terry Coakley, a three-year member of the club from Southie, said a friend recently took "a risque picture" of herself to send her husband while he was out of town -- and accidentally e-mailed it to another girlfriend. "I didn't even think of those phones in the locker room before, but they should be banned there, definitely," Coakley said as she jogged on a treadmill.

Strategy Analytics, a Newton consulting firm, estimates that 25 million camera phones were shipped worldwide in the first half of this year, compared to 20 million standard digital cameras. Verizon Wireless, the biggest US and New England carrier, handles 2 million camera phone images a month, and the number soars week by week. A British website, snaparazzi.com, recently began publishing paparazzi-style images of celebrities made by camera-phone owners.

"It's not surprising to me that people would feel a little bit paranoid about these things," said Stephen Pfohl, a Boston College sociology professor and author of "Death at the Parasite Cafe," which explores themes of lost privacy. "There's an ambivalence that's so widespread about how pervasive cellphones have become anyway."

As one of the places where average people are most likely to be unclothed around cellphone-carrying strangers, health and sports club changing rooms and shower areas seem to have emerged as a particular focus of angst.

National industry groups such as the Boston-based International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association say they have yet to find any confirmed episodes of wireless phones being used to surreptitiously photograph naked health-club patrons. But "it definitely has registered on the industry's radar," said William C. Howland, a spokesman for the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, which represents 3,800 clubs nationwide.

Guidelines for club no-phone policies would probably depend on voluntary compliance by members and monitoring by club staff. Clubs could even cancel violators' memberships. "The reason why it's a concern is you see someone talking on the phone in the locker room and it doesn't register any concern," said Ray Lowenstein, manager of the Cambridge Racquet and Fitness Club.

Wireless industry executives are perplexed over alarm generated specifically by camera phones, especially given that a committed voyeur can already buy devices that take much more revealing images. The best cellphone cameras today can take images totaling about 300,000 "pixels," or individual dots, one-third to one-tenth the resolution of a digital camera. Few have better than minimal zoom-lens functionality.

"Yes, it is small, but there are many, many cameras out there that will fit in the palm of your hand," said AT&T Wireless spokesman Marty Nee.

Verizon Wireless backs the same "common sense" restrictions on wireless camera phones as any other kind of camera, said a spokeswoman, J. Abra Degbor. "The ability to misuse a product is always possible," Degbor said, but she noted many stories of beneficial uses, including a 15-year-old New Jersey boy foiling a would-be kidnapper this summer by snapping pictures of the man and his car license plate with his cellphone.

Larry McDonnell of Sprint PCS said, "It just amazes me that attention has turned to wireless phones when there are plenty of other surveillance cameras out there that are being advertised in places like pop up ads on the Web. When you try to take a picture with a wireless phone, it's one of the most conspicuous things you can do. You have to be reasonably close to even get a decent picture."

But BC's Pfohl noted Sprint's widely televised new ad of a young woman taking a candid phone photo of a sub-munching slob at a diner and sending it to her friend with the message, "Here's your new boyfriend."

"The advertising for it, I think, suggests the possibility that you can use the phone for something surreptitious or salacious," Pfohl said. "I think it's being promoted in a subtle way: We can all be secret agents."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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