Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon processor powers many of the 2022 smartphone models soon to be rolled out in stores, including Sony, Motorola and OnePlus. The company has offered smartphone manufacturers the option to keep the forward-facing selfie-camera always on, so as to constantly be scanning for the owner’s face.
It may not be clear to smartphone owners why such a feature would be considered desirable, but Qualcomm VP Judd Heape argued during the company’s Tech Summit in November that it gives owners an “advantage.”
“Your phone’s front camera is always securely looking for your face, even if you don’t touch it,” he explained.
The feature is being touted for enabling the phone to unlock itself when it “sees” the user’s face, lock it when they glance away, and even hide notifications if the camera spots someone else around.
Heape seemed surprised in a conversation with the Washington Post, published on Monday, that no one had thought of designing a phone this way before, insisting the tech was completely safe and privacy-oriented. “What’s happening here is detecting a binary: is there a face, or is there not a face,” he pointed out, arguing “there is not a photograph taken. There is no video being recorded.” None of the data being analyzed for the presence of a face actually leaves the chip, he insists.
It’s not clear how many of the features that the company included in its press release for the latest Snapdragon processor actually exist yet. It would in theory be up to the smartphones’ manufacturers whether to build them into their devices.
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Defenders of Qualcomm’s always-on camera appear to position it as the lesser of two evils rather than attempt to defend the kind of 24/7 real-time surveillance it makes possible. Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag suggested that microphones – constantly feeding sound to the cloud – were “far more invasive” than their video equivalents.
Qualcomm is also apparently spinning the new feature as a useful new habit: its Tech Summit presentation showed a man baking in his kitchen, merely glancing at the phone to unlock it rather than getting his phone dirty in order to find out the next step of the recipe.
While some smartphone users who reacted on online forums seemed unwilling to trade their privacy for even the most extreme convenience, others seemed no to mind, suggesting that the feature was as trivial as Apple’s Face ID.
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