New Qualcomm always-on smartphone cameras are a privacy disaster

Qualcomm's new always-on camera capabilities built into the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor will be available early next year in the company's top-of-the-line Android devices.


Source: Google Images

Main Highlights:

“Your phone’s front camera is always securely looking for your face, even if you don’t touch it or raise to wake it.” That’s how Qualcomm Technologies Vice President of Product Management Judd Heape defined the company’s new always-on camera features in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, which will be released in the first quarter of next year in high-end Android devices.

That phrase, depending on who you are, can be either thrilling or terrifying. Qualcomm believes that this new capability will enable new use cases, such as waking and unlocking your phone without picking it up or having it automatically lock when it no longer sees your face.

However, for those aware of how modern technology is being used to violate our privacy, a camera on our phone is constantly recording images. Even when we are not using it, it sounds nightmare-inducing, with a cost to our privacy that well outweighs any potential convenience benefits.

Where can Qualcomm’s always-on feature be useful?

Qualcomm’s primary selling point for this feature is that it allows you to unlock your phone whenever you look at it, even if it is simply sitting on a table or propped up on a stand. There is no requirement that you pick it up, tap the screen, or speak a command – it simply unlocks when it recognizes your face. This could be beneficial if your hands are messy or otherwise engaged.

Qualcomm provided the example of checking the following steps while making a dish. Perhaps you’ve mounted your phone in your car and can glance over at it to check driving directions without taking your hands off the wheel or leaving the screen on the entire time.

Source: Google Images

Additionally, the business spins it as a way to increase the security of your phone by automatically locking it when it no longer identifies your face or detects someone peering over your shoulder and snooping on your group conversation. Additionally, it can prevent private information or notifications from appearing when you’re sharing your phone with someone else.

Essentially, if you are not looking at your phone, it is locked; if it detects you, it unlocks. If it can distinguish between you and another person, it can automatically lock the phone or prevent sensitive information or notifications from being displayed on the screen.

Qualcomm compares the always-on camera to the always-on microphones that have been a part of our smartphones for years. These are used to listen for voice commands like “Hey Siri” or “Hey Google” (or, more appropriately, “Hi Bixby”) and then wake up the phone and respond without you having to touch or pick it up.

However, the critical distinction is that they listen for specific wake words and are frequently limited in their capabilities until you pick up and unlock your phone. It’s a little different when it’s a camera that’s constantly on the lookout for your likeness.

Authentic, innovative home products already include similar functions. When you approach Google’s Nest Hub Max, the camera recognizes your face and greets you with personal information such as your schedule. Home security cameras and video doorbells are always on, scanning for movement or even individual faces. However, such devices are located in your home, are not constantly carried with you wherever you go, and do not often keep your most private information, as your phone does.

Additionally, they usually include features such as physical shutters that allow you to block the camera or intelligent modes that will enable you to disable recording when you’re home and resume it when you’re not. It’s difficult to see any phone manufacturer equipping their small and beautiful flagship smartphone with a physical shutter.

Finally, several cases of security breaches and social engineering hacks enable intelligent home cameras to operate when they are not supposed to and then transmit the feed to remote servers without the homeowner’s awareness. While modern smartphone operating systems can alert you when an app attempts to access your camera or microphone while you’re using the device, it’s unclear how they’d caution you to a rogue app accessing the always-on camera.

Heape stated that the data from the always-on camera never leaves the secure sensing hub while it is scanning for faces, meaning that the data is not transferred to the cloud and will be inaccessible to phone apps.

According to another Qualcomm Technologies vice president of product management, Ziad Asghar, consumers will also be able to stop the always-on camera feature and maybe even choose which capabilities they want to employ. He stated that the consumer has the option of selecting what is enabled and what is not.

Additionally, smartphone makers likely using the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 will not enable this capability because Qualcomm does not manufacture the smartphones in which its chips are installed (apart from the one-off novelty that is not commonly purchased).

Firms like Samsung, OnePlus, and Xiaomi can tailor which functions are activated and disabled on their phones. Several of those firms already eschew Qualcomm’s image processing components in favor of their own — it’s not difficult to imagine them simply ignoring privacy concerns and omitting this feature as well.

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