Smartphone with front camera always on, when innovation clashes with privacy

We like to tell the news of the products from the technical point of view, but we also know that the most important innovations, such as truly revolutionary, are those that in some way simplify life. In the new Snpadragon 8 Gen 1 there is a feature that can potentially change the way we use a smartphone today, a novelty that Qualcomm has called “always on camera”.

Thanks to a small processor inserted in the Sensing Hub, inside a protected sandbox, Qualcomm manages to keep the front camera of the phone always on, without impacting the autonomy, to understand if the user of the phone is looking at the screen.

Before shouting the “privacy” scandal, we’ll come back to it later, we must point out that Qualcomm has done nothing but bring to the camera a function already present for years on phones linked to microphones, namely the “Voice Recognition always on“.

If voice assistants on phones today are ready to answer when we say “OK Google”, It is simply because the device’s microphone it is always active and ready to recognize the two keywords that “wake up” the voice assistant. With the Always On camera, a similar thing happens: after having stored our face in the secure memory of the phone, the camera will be able to understand if our face is framed or not, and will also be able to understand if in addition to our face there are any. others.

The use of this technology, which until now was not possible, leaves open a huge series of really interesting use scenarios, and the video that Qualcomm showed during the keynote shows some of these. Here is an excerpt.

For example, the phone can be unlocked without using your hands, and more importantly it can be locked automatically after a few seconds that we back it somewhere.

If someone is peeking on our screen without our knowledge, then, the screen can be darkened as you can obscure details in the event that two people are watching something together, for example a film: if in addition to the owner there is another person in front of the screen notifications can be delayed and only shown when the person is alone.

This is the paradox: the practical applications of this camera always in operation have a positive impact on user privacy, yet the presence on the device of a camera that “always sees” it is at the same time a threat to privacy.

Who is willing to have a phone with a camera that is always on? Qualcomm obviously explained that the camera it is not intended to record and store any data, and that the whole process is based on a local analysis of the face that returns to the processor a simple data, that is the presence of the registered face or its absence, but it is not an easy thing to communicate to those without a technical background. A camera that is always active, for many people, it is something that could still “spy”.

One thing is certain: Qualcomm has created another possible attack vector at a time when smartphones are targeted by malware, including governmental ones. Qualcomm’s Always on Camera system, just like the Always On listening systems of voice assistants, it is exempt from having to show the “dot” which indicates, on the most recent Android versions, the use of the camera. It would always be active, it would make no sense. This means that if someone, unlikely but not impossible, finds a way to pierce the protection system, they will have access not only to the microphones but also to a camera without the user’s knowledge.

This fear is what has led, in recent years, many users to use an adhesive to cover the front camera of notebooks, and to notebook manufacturers to install a flap to cover the webcam when it is not in use.

The manufacturers can always choose not to implement this feature, and who will implement it will leave the user the possibility to disable it in the options, but the doubt will always remain.

Many high-end smartphones next year they will have a front camera always on, and this could push many users to buy competing phones, always good at putting privacy at the center of everything. Others, however, will begin to think that perhaps it is appropriate to cover the smartphone camera with a sticker.

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