Internet & Tech

Who’s watching

How smartphone apps may infringe privacy

Vivo-w

Vivo Nex S

When Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture in 2016 to celebrate the growing user base of Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, internet users noticed that Zuckerberg had taped up his laptop’s camera and microphone jack. The reason: possibly to avoid hackers gaining access to his devices by using remote-access trojans – a process called “ratting.”

Chinese smartphone users might have to start taping up their cameras too – that’s because they just found out last month that their cameras can watch them even when the owner hasn’t switched them on. This became evident thanks to the launch of a new smartphone.

The model in question – the Nex S – is made by local handset giant Vivo and boasts a screen that takes up the entire phone. The problem that results: there is nowhere to place a front-facing camera, which is mostly used for taking selfies. So Vivo’s idea was to embed the camera at the top of the phone and make it pop out when the device needed to capture an image.

However, those who have got their hands on the Android-powered Vivo Nex S say the phone’s selfie camera is making surprise appearances even when they are not taking any pictures. A few users have complained on Sina Weibo that the selfie camera rolled out without prompting when they tried to compose a new message using messaging app Telegram. Others also reported the same problem when they opened Tencent’s QQ browser or when using the online travel app Ctrip.

<ad>

So are apps and browsers – like the aforementioned ones – snooping on the users of smartphones in general? That is the question being asked by worried netizens. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. I just want to see what you are doing,” one joked of the apparent privacy breach.

“Vivo’s Nex is a monster-revealing mirror. One look and you will see all the scary monsters and ghosts,” another said of the pop-up camera.

Tencent has since explained that when the QQ browser is opened, it could have prompted the camera to appear “but the action does not turn on the camera so it won’t shoot or record,” the company pointed out in a statement. It also put the blame squarely on Android’s application programming interface (API), claiming the issue related to the QR code scanning functionality within the mobile operating system.

ThePaper.cn said it is not unusual for apps to ‘warm-up’ the camera prior to using it so as to optimise performance. “Warming up means that regardless of whether the users are using the camera or not, the application will ask for access and then take the necessary parameters so by the time they need to turn on the camera, it would quickly be ready,” an industry insider told the internet newspaper.

The latest debacle shows China’s growing awareness of personal privacy issues. Consumers have reasons to be worried. Data collected through one medium can often end up in another. For instance, a man who talked on his mobile phone one day about picking strawberries claims that when he used his phone the next day to open AI-driven news aggregator Toutiao it was trying to push all kinds of strawberry-related news to his browser, reports The Economist.

One software developer told TMTPost, a tech news portal, smartphone apps are increasingly insistent on users entering their mobile number for SMS verification. The goal is not to prove identity of the user but allow the app developer to gain access to critical information like their cellphone numbers and other personal information. “To put it simply, stealing user information and money go hand in hand,” the developer told TMTPost.

More popular apps have also made it impossible for users to bypass the registering of their personal information online, says ThePaper.cn. For instance, users who are not logged into the more popular social media apps can only watch videos on low-definition; they cannot comment or use other social functions; they also aren’t able to download any files. Needless to say, after a while, most users register to enjoy the convenience.

Meanwhile, for Vivo, some say it could end up as a positive for the handset maker. After all, users can now find out which of their apps are using the selfie camera, something that isn’t possible on other smartphones that have the traditional front camera setup.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.