(NEXSTAR) — If you’ve ever worried that photos of you taken by a stranger will be posted online, a concept that keeps popping up on social media might sound like a godsend: phone cameras that make shutter sounds when photos are taken — and the feature can’t be disabled.
According to many on TikTok, phones in Japan come with this feature already installed by law. But is this actually true — and if so, why, specifically?
It turns out, this social media claim is true but it’s not exactly a “law” in the way that many online believe. It’s more of a rule. Here’s what that means.
The issue’s origins go back much further than expected, back to the days before most people on the planet owned a smartphone. As reported by the South China Morning Post, among others, the un-disable-able feature goes back to the time after the release of the first camera phone in 2000. The Kyocera VP-210, released first in Japan, did not include any camera noise.
The convenience of the VP-210 led to a major uptick in what are called “upskirt” photos, however, or photos users were taking without consent up women’s skirts on crowded trains. Interestingly, cellular manufacturers and carriers — not the government — devised the solution in an effort to “prevent camera phones from being used in ways offensive to public morals,” a spokesperson for technology investment firm SoftBank previously told tech outlet Engadget.
This rule was agreed upon by all carriers and manufacturers as a way of not only protecting potential victims but likely to protect themselves from potential legal ramifications.
To this day, despite it being called a “law” online, the shutter sound on phone cameras is more of an across-the-board mandate, at least in Japan. The South Korean government does have a decibel-level recommendation for phone cameras, however.
An ill-timed shutter sound even caused a hiccup back in 2019, when a shutter sound went off during Korean PGA player Bio Kim’s 16th tee shot. According to Golf, Kim reportedly found the interruption so offensive he gave the audience the middle finger before throwing his club.
The unique cultural difference in privacy protections continues to astound Americans. A TikTok search of “Japan shutter sound” will bring up countless videos of people attesting to the claims.
“I actually bought a phone from Japan and I know that’s true,” TikToker @zaytashon explained to their 805,000 followers. “I went to Japan my senior year of high school… I bought this iPhone XR when it was $1,000 in the U.S. but $300 in Japan. I thought I scored! I brought it back to America and y’all, when I tell you for the longest time I didn’t understand why every time I took a picture there was that shutter sound — even on Do Not Disturb and the sound off. Yeah, you can’t turn it off. I tried.”
All of this is not to say that some smartphone users don’t find workarounds, including importing phones from other countries or by using third-party camera apps.
Meanwhile, generational attitudes about taking pictures of people without their consent (even in non-sexual ways) are evolving right here in America, too. As more and more unsuspecting people find themselves the subject of ridicule or sexual objectification on social media by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, many have wondered whether it is time for American phones to implement a similar safeguard.
Although it’s legal to take photos of someone in public without their consent, the ethics of doing it are increasingly questioned. Many photography outlets, universities and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have their own guides to ethical photography and videography.
The CDC recommends considering whether a person’s safety could be compromised by taking a photo of them in a place (taking a photo of a person in an LGBTQ space, for instance) or whether any unfair power dynamics are present (taking a photo of an unhoused person for a news story about how homelessness is ruining a city’s tourism, for instance).
A good rule of thumb is to think before you click and post photos responsibly.