Soon, Your Phone’s Camera Might Always Be Watching You

Privacy concerns are just the tip of the iceberg

Key Takeaways

  • Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon processor has a feature that allows front-facing cameras on phones to stay on all the time.
  • The chipmaker says the always-on camera could provide convenience, allowing your phone to recognize you at all times. 
  • But privacy experts say that having a camera that’s always watching opens up a world of potential problems.
Someone holding a smartphone like they're taking a landscape picture.

Aliyev Alexei Segeevich / Getty images

Your next phone might have a camera that's always watching. 

Chipmaker Qualcomm recently unveiled its latest Snapdragon processor, which has a feature that could keep front-facing cameras on all the time. The company says the camera offers convenience. But some observers are raising concerns. 

"The privacy implications of always-on cameras are disastrous," Michael Huth, the head of the Department of Computing at Imperial College London, told Lifewire in an email interview. "If users don't have any control over the cameras on their phones or handsets, they lose their privacy and freedom completely."

No Need to Press the Button

Qualcomm said the always-on camera feature could be used to activate your phone whenever you glance at it. 

“Your phone’s front camera is always securely looking for your face, even if you don’t touch it or raise to wake it,” Qualcomm Technologies vice president of product management Judd Heape said during a video presentation

For example, Heape said your phone could recognize you while driving in a car. The new feature is designed to use very little power even though it’s always on. 

Always Watching You

The always-on camera feature touted by Qualcomm might be convenient, but it's also a potential privacy invasion. 

An always-on camera could be accessed by the Android operating system or by apps if you have granted permission to use the camera, Chris Hauk, a consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy, pointed out in an email interview with Lifewire. But, Hauk said, there have been many instances of apps accessing smartphone components without having been granted permission. Also, the camera doesn't include an indicator light that would illuminate when the camera is being used. 

"Thinking beyond the obvious, there are also some scary tracking and stalking issues that might arise when a cyberstalker commandeers a target's phone..."

"Hopefully, Google will not offer a way to access the camera in apps, instead limiting usage of the camera for unlocking the device," he added. 

Open mics and cameras on smartphones that are always-on could be a magnet to cybercriminals and hackers, said cybersecurity expert Scott Schober in an email interview with Lifewire. In the not-so-distant future, we will start to hear many reports of digital extortion where people are in a compromised position where their smartphone had recorded not just the conversation but also video evidence, he predicted

"I can envision celebrities, political leaders, influencers having their images and speech being streamed realtime through social media by a hacker having fun," Schober added. 

Owning a smartphone with an always-on camera could also create problems just walking through a secure area such as a research lab, a government facility that houses classified information, or a locker room could leak intellectual property or a compromised picture of an individual, Schober said.  

"Thinking beyond the obvious, there are also some scary tracking and stalking issues that might arise when a cyberstalker commandeers a target's phone, and now they can 'see' them at all times because their camera is always-on it gets even creepier," Schober added. 

Someone using a smartphone to take a picture of a city skyline at dusk.

d3sign / Getty images

Huth said that some users might assume an always-on camera could help them in a dangerous situation since they might be able to record the perpetrators. 

"But this would require AI to be able to classify a situation like a mugging and activate the recording function on its own," he added. "If it existed, attackers would, of course, be aware of this kind of functionality, so using this feature could escalate the attack and prompt them to destroy the phone."

Huth even imagines a dystopian future where always-on cameras could be used for total surveillance of the users. Companies could track your every move, he said. The hardware would prevent turning a camera off, so, in theory and practice, the software would be able to record everything without interruption, no matter where the users were or what they were doing. 

"Always-on cameras are Orwellian in the strictest sense," Huth added. "In "1984", protagonist Winston Smith tries in vain to hide within his own apartment from the ever-present cameras that surveil him and ultimately destroy his life. This is not just a slippery slope [leading] to this dystopian situation. It's the same exact technology."

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