Some people, however, are using them for nefarious purposes, such as taking pictures beneath women's skirts and posting them on the Internet. Lawmakers want to make taking such surreptitious photos and other illicit uses of video technology a federal crime punishable by up to a year in jail.
"No one should have to go through the embarrassment of being secretly taped by an electronic peeping Tom, or seeing those pictures turn up on the Internet," said Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, a former FBI agent who is an advocate for the bill.
While there are no official studies on the intrusive use of camera phones, lawmakers and anti-crime advocates say "video voyeurism" is a serious crime that deserves a serious response by the government.
Simple voyeurism, secretly photographing or videotaping someone in a compromising position or in a private place, already is against the law in most states. The proliferation of tiny cellular telephones that can take pictures silently has facilitated the taking of illicit photos in public places such as grocery stores, sidewalks and restaurants.
In December, a Sammamish, Wash., man pleaded not guilty to a charge of voyeurism after being accused of using a cellular telephone camera to take photographs up a woman's skirt. Jack Le Vu, 20, was released on $25,000 bail.
A witness told investigators the man pretended to scan a grocery store's shelves as he followed a 26-year-old woman in a supermarket. He periodically crouched with his camera phone extended beneath her skirt and snapped photos.
"Discovering you've been a victim of video voyeurism puts you in fear and unrelenting anxiety, and you are suspicious then everywhere you go," said Susan Howley, public policy director at the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Oxley said he's heard numerous stories "about how individual privacy has been violated in locker rooms, dressing rooms and even homes." And Internet surfers can easily find Web sites with camera phone pictures of those individuals posted for the world to see.
Even when a person finds out about a peeping Tom, the hodgepodge of laws around the nation sometimes let criminal cases avoid prosecution. "Victims will go to the police and be told that `We'd love to arrest this person, but it's not technically against the law,"' Howley said.
Currently there is no federal law protecting citizens from secret and intrusive videotaping in public places, Oxley said, and some prosecutors have had difficulty making cases.
"That's why we wanted to make a specific crime so there would be no misunderstanding which law applies," he said. "This is a case where the law is trying to catch up with the technology or the misuse of technology."
The bill before Congress would make it illegal to videotape, photograph, film, broadcast or record a naked person or someone in underwear anyplace where a "reasonable person would believe that he or she could disrobe in privacy."
The legislation also would make it illegal to sneak photos of a person's "private parts" when "their private parts would not be visible to the public, regardless of whether that person is in a public or private area."
A person convicted under the law could face a fine and as much as a year in jail.
States already are trying to deal with the problem. Twenty states have laws that cover only secret taping with cameras, and some are modifying them to include camera phones, Howley said.
Iowa, California, Maryland and other states are crafting similar legislation specifically aimed at camera phones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Iowa's proposal would go further than the federal legislation by making it illegal to have a cellular telephone with a camera feature in dressing rooms, locker rooms or other public places where people disrobe, even if the cellular telephone user does not use the camera.
Camera phones are becoming commonplace in American society, with sales expected to double or even triple in coming years. In 2003, about 6 million camera phones were shipped to the United States, according to Strategy Analytics Ltd. Phones that can take video soon may become just as common.
The bill passed the Senate by voice vote without dissent. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider it before the August recess.
By Jesse J. Holland