“Your phone’s front camera will always be sure to find your face, even if you don’t touch it or lift it to wake it up,” says Judd Heape, Vice President of Product Management, Qualcomm Technologies introduced the company’s new always-on camera capabilities by doing Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor slated to hit the market in premium Android phones early next year.

Depending on who you are, this statement can be either exciting or terrifying. Qualcomm expects this new feature will enable new use cases such as:

But for those of us who have a feel for how modern technology is being used to invade our privacy, a camera on our phone that is constantly taking pictures even if we don’t use it Sounds like nightmares and has costs to our privacy that far outweigh any possible comfort benefits.

Qualcomm’s main goal for this feature is to unlock your phone anytime you look at it, even if it’s just on a table or stand. No need to pick it up, tap the screen, or say a voice command – it only unlocks when it sees your face. I can see this come in handy when your hands are messy or otherwise busy (in their presentation, Qualcomm used the example of using it while cooking a recipe to check next steps). Perhaps you’ve mounted your phone in your car and you can just look at it to see directions without taking your hands off the steering wheel or leaving the screen on all the time.

The company is also turning it around to make your phone safer by automatically locking your phone if it can’t see your face or if it detects someone looking over your shoulder and sniffing your group chat. It can also prevent private information or notifications from appearing while you are looking at the phone with someone else. Basically, your phone is locked when you are not looking at it. If it can see you, it will be unlocked. If it can see you and someone else, it can lock the phone automatically or hide private information or notifications from being shown on the screen.

But while these features may sound neat and maybe even practical, I’m not convinced that an always-on camera is worth the trade-off on privacy concerns.

Always-on camera capabilities will be discussed in hour three of Qualcomm’s four-hour presentation on the launch of the Snapdragon Gen 1 system-on-chip.

Qualcomm designs the always-on camera 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”) and then wake up the phone and respond without touching or lifting the phone. The main difference, however, is that they listen for certain wake-up words and are often limited in what they can until you actually pick up and unlock your phone.

It feels 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 such features. Nest Hub Max from Google uses its camera to recognize your face when you walk towards it and greets you with personal information like your calendar. Home security cameras and video doorbells are constantly on, looking for activity or even specific faces. But these devices reside in your home, aren’t always taken everywhere, and generally don’t hold your most sensitive information on them, as is your phone. They also often have features like physical bezels to block the camera or smart modes to turn off recording when you are at home and only resume when you are away. It’s hard to imagine a phone manufacturer adding a physical clasp to the front of their sleek and sleek flagship smartphone.

After all, there have been many reports about Security breach and Social engineering hacks to activate smart home cameras when you don’t want them to be on and then send that feed to remote servers, all without the homeowner’s knowledge. Modern smartphone operating systems are now doing a good job notifies you when an app is accessing your camera or microphone while you are using the device but it is not clear how to let you know about a deceptive app that is tapping the always-on camera.

Heape said that “always-on camera data never leaves the secure sensor hub while looking for faces,” which means the data is not sent to the cloud and apps on the phone cannot access it.

Another Qualcomm Technologies vice president of product management, Ziad Asghar, told my colleague Chaim Gartenberg that users can also disable the always-on camera feature, or possibly even choose which features they want to use and which they don’t. “The consumer has a choice to choose what is enabled and what is not,” he said.

The OnePlus 7 Pro hid its entire camera system in a motorized popup module. Maybe it’s time to bring that idea back.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Edge

It is also possible that the smartphone manufacturers that use the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 do not even enable this feature at the hardware level. Since Qualcomm doesn’t actually make the smartphones, its chips (outside of unique novelties which aren’t widely used), companies like Samsung, OnePlus, and Xiaomi can customize which features are enabled on their phones and which 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 just skip the criticism of privacy concerns and forego that feature as well.

But even if it won’t be found in every phone next year, the very presence of the feature means someone will use it at some point. It sets a precedent that is both worrying and inconvenient; Qualcomm may be the first to have this ability, but it won’t be long before other companies keep up with it in the race to keep up.

Maybe we’ll just start taping our smartphone cameras like we’re already doing with laptop webcams.

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