Qualcomm’s new always-on smartphone camera is a privacy nightmare

“Your phone’s front camera always searches for your face safely, even if you don’t touch or lift it to wake it up. This is how Judd Heape, vice president of product management at Qualcomm Technologies showcased the company’s new permanent camera capabilities in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor which is expected to arrive in high-end Android phones early next year.

Depending on who you are, this statement can be exciting or terrifying. For Qualcomm, he believes this new feature will allow for new use cases, like being able to wake and unlock your phone without having to pick it up or instantly lock it when it no longer sees your face.

But for those of us who know how modern technology is used to violate our privacy, a camera on our phone that is always recording footage even when not in use sound like nightmares and comes at a cost to our privacy that far outweighs the potential convenience benefits.

Qualcomm’s main argument for this feature is to unlock your phone every time you look at it, even if it’s just sitting on a table or on a stand. You don’t need to pick it up, tap the screen, or say a voice command – it just unlocks when it sees your face. I can see that this is useful if your hands are messy or busy (in their presentation Qualcomm used the example of using it when cooking a recipe to check the next steps). Maybe your phone is installed in your car and you can just glance at it to see the driving instructions without having to take your hands off the wheel or leave the screen on all the time.

The company also spins it to make your phone safer by automatically locking the phone when it no longer sees your face or detects someone looking over your shoulder and snooping on your group chat. It can also prevent private information or notifications from appearing if you are looking at the phone with someone else. Basically if you don’t watch it your phone is locked; if he can see you, he will be unlocked. If he can see you and someone else, it can automatically lock the phone or hide private information or on-screen notifications.

But while these features might sound cool and maybe even handy, I’m not convinced having an always-on camera is worth the trade-off when it comes to privacy.

Always-on camera features are discussed in Hour 3 of Qualcomm’s four-hour presentation showcasing the Snapdragon Gen 1 system-on-a-chip.

Qualcomm presents the Always On Camera as similar to the Always On microphones that have been in our phones for years. These are used to listen to voice commands like “Hey Siri” or “Hey Google” (or lol, “Hi Bixby”), then wake up the phone and provide a response, all without you having to touch or pick up. the phone. But the main difference is that they listen to specific wake-up words and are often limited in what they can do until you actually pick up your phone and unlock it.

It’s a little different when it comes to a camera that is always looking for your likeness.

It is true that smart home products already have features like this. Google’s Nest Hub Max uses its camera to recognize your face as you approach and greets you with personal information like your calendar. Home security cameras and video doorbells are constantly on, looking for activities or even specific faces. But these devices are in your home, don’t always take with you everywhere you go, and usually don’t contain your most private information like your phone does. They also frequently have features like physical shutters to block the camera or smart modes to turn off recording when you’re at home and only resume when you’re not. It’s hard to imagine a phone maker putting a physical shutter on the front of their slim and sleek flagship smartphone.

Finally, there are plenty of reports of security breaches and social engineering hacks to activate smart home cameras when they’re not supposed to be on, and then send that stream to remote servers, all unbeknownst to the user. owner. Modern smartphone operating systems now do a good job of telling you when an app is accessing your camera or microphone while you’re using the device, but it’s unclear how they might notify you of an app. malicious who always uses -at the camera.

Heape said that “persistent camera data never leaves the secure detection hub while searching for faces,” implying that the data is not sent to the cloud and apps on the phone will not be able to. to access.

Another vice president of product management at Qualcomm Technologies, Ziad Asghar, told my colleague Chaim Gartenberg that users will also be able to turn off the always-on camera feature or maybe even select the features they want to use and the ones they don’t want to use. “The consumer has the choice of being able to choose what is activated and what is not,” he said.

The OnePlus 7 Pro has hidden its entire camera system in a motorized pop-up module. Maybe it’s time to bring this idea back.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

It’s also possible that smartphone makers using the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 won’t even enable this feature at the hardware level. Since Qualcomm doesn’t actually make the smartphones that its chips are built into (aside from one-off new features that aren’t widely purchased), companies like Samsung, OnePlus, and Xiaomi can customize which features are enabled on their phones and which ones don’t. are not. . Some of these companies are already bypassing Qualcomm’s image processing components in favor of their own solutions – it’s not hard to see them ignore criticism of privacy concerns and forgo this feature as well.

But while it’s not in every phone next year, the feature’s mere presence means that it will be used by someone at some point. This sets a disturbing and uncomfortable precedent; Qualcomm may be the first to have this capability, but it won’t be long before other companies add it in the race to keep pace.

Maybe we’ll just start having to tape our smartphone cameras like we already do with laptop webcams.

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