Qualcomm’s New Always-On Smartphone Camera Is a Privacy Nightmare
At the Snapdragon Tech Summit 2021 yesterday, Qualcomm introduced their new always-on camera capabilities in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, which is expected to arrive in high-end Android phones early next year. The company says this new feature will let users wake and unlock their phone without having to pick it up or have it instantly lock when it no longer sees their face. Even though Judd Heape, Qualcomm Technologies vice president of product management, said that the “always-on camera data never leaves the secure sensing hub while it’s looking for faces,” it raises a serious privacy concern that “far outweighs any potential convenience benefits,” argues The Verge’s Dan Seifert. From the report: Qualcomm is framing the always-on camera as similar to the always-on microphones that have been in our phones for years. Those are used to listen for voice commands like “Hey Siri” or “Hey Google” (or lol, “Hi Bixby”) and then wake up the phone and provide a response, all without you having to touch or pick up the phone. But the key difference is that they are listening for specific wake words and are often limited with what they can do until you do actually pick up your phone and unlock it. It feels a bit different when it’s a camera that’s always scanning for your likeness.

It’s true that smart home products already have features like this. Google’s Nest Hub Max uses its camera to recognize your face when you walk up to it and greet you with personal information like your calendar. Home security cameras and video doorbells are constantly on, looking for activity or even specific faces. But those devices are in your home, not always carried with you everywhere you go, and generally don’t have your most private information stored on them, like your phone does. They also frequently have features like physical shutters to block the camera or intelligent modes to disable recording when you’re home and only resume it when you aren’t. It’s hard to imagine any phone manufacturer putting a physical shutter on the front of their slim and sleek flagship smartphone.

Lastly, there have been many reports of security breaches and social engineering hacks to enable smart home cameras when they aren’t supposed to be on and then send that feed to remote servers, all without the knowledge of the homeowner. 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 not clear how they’d be able to inform you of a rogue app tapping into the always-on camera. […] But even if it’s not found in every phone next year, the mere presence of the feature means that it will be used by someone at some point. It sets a precedent that is unsettling and uncomfortable; Qualcomm may be the first with this capability, but it won’t be long before other companies add it in the race to keep up. Maybe we’ll just start having to put tape on our smartphone cameras like we already do with laptop webcams.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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