Last week, chipmaker Qualcomm revealed its latest Snapdragon processor, which will power many of the high-end Android smartphones you’ll see in stores in 2022, including models from Motorola, Sony, OnePlus. And a new feature built into that chip could allow smartphone makers to keep those front-facing cameras on all the time in a sort of low-power mode, waiting and watching for a face to appear in front of it.
The idea of a camera that stays on as long as your phone does seems deeply unsettling, even in an age where people are convinced that smartphones are already eavesdropping on our conversations. So why is a company responsible for building the brains of our smartphones trying to make “always-on” cameras a common feature?
Ironically, Qualcomm insists the move is meant to make phones not just more convenient, but more secure.
“The always-on camera gives one very basic advantage,” said Judd Heape, a Qualcomm vice president during the company’s Tech Summit in Hawaii last month. “Your phone’s front camera is always securely looking for your face, even if you don’t touch it.”
In time, a phone using this new chip could feasibly unlock itself when it sees your face, and automatically lock itself again when you’re not looking at it anymore. Or, if it sees someone else’s face next to yours, the phone could automatically hide notifications so no one else can see what your incoming emails or Slack messages are about. The benefit of a phone that’s always looking for you, it seems, is that it knows to act different when you’re not looking back.
As it turns out, the Qualcomm tech that could make such features possible is conceptually pretty basic. “What’s happening here is detecting a binary: is there a face, or is there not a face,” Heape told me. “There is not a photograph taken. There is no video being recorded.” He also noted that none of camera data leaves the chip when it’s being analyzed for faces.
Right now, most of those privacy-minded features don’t exist yet. That’s up to smartphone makers to implement, and Qualcomm knows those companies are interested in always-on camera features like the ones described above.
“Those use-cases are ones that we’ve had discussions with customers about,” Heape said. And that means you basically have to trust the Samsungs and OnePluses of the world to handle things responsibly. Unfortunately, that’s not always the right move. (Representatives for Samsung, Sony and OnePlus declined to comment on their plans for future devices.)
Even so, some experts believe that these kinds of always-on cameras might not be the sources of dystopian distress their names imply.
“I would argue that always-on microphones that send data to the cloud are far more invasive,” said Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
But even if these always-on cameras aren’t constantly recording you, they could still potentially lead people to privacy issues. One of Qualcomm’s big arguments for this kind of tech is that it makes accessing your phone more convenient — in its presentation, it showed off a clip of a man baking in his kitchen unlocking his phone with just a glance. Heape explained to me that, in a situations like that, the always-on camera will detect its owner’s face and prompt them to unlock their phone as always.
To achieve the kind of dead-simple, look-and-you’re-done experience Qualcomm depicts, you would have to rely on your phone’s face unlock feature. And therein lies the rub: in some cases, that can be much less secure than unlocking your phone with a fingerprint scan, or even a standard password.
As we wait for the first phones with always-on cameras to hit the market, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate the age-old tension between privacy and convenience. For some people, though, a few seconds saved here and there aren’t worth the trade-off.
“I do not like the idea of an always on camera. For any reason whatsoever,” one Android phone user wrote on Reddit. “All the excuses and explanations in the world will never make me feel comfortable with that because I will never feel like my privacy is truly secure.”