China: New phone with retractable camera reveals automatic activation of camera feature in certain applications raising concerns about monitoring

Author: Oiwan Lam, Global Voices (Netherlands), Published on: 16 July 2018

"Chinese mobile phone cameras are not-so-secretly recording users’ activities", 9 Jul 2018

…Last month, users of Vivo NEX, a Chinese Android phone, found that when they opened certain applications on the phone, including Chinese internet giant QQ browser and travel booking app Ctrip, the mobile device’s camera would self-activate. Different from most mobile phones…Vivo NEX has a tiny retractable camera that physically pops out…when it is turned on…[giving] users a tangible sense of exactly when and how they are being monitored.

One Weibo user observed that the retractable camera self-activates whenever he opens a new chat on Telegram…While Telegram reacted quickly to reports of the issue and fixed the camera bug…Tencent instead defended the feature, arguing that its QQ browser needs the camera activated to prepare for scanning QR codes and insisted that the camera would not take photos or audio recordings unless the user told it to do so. This explanation was not reassuring for users, as it only revealed the degree to which the QQ browser could record users’ activities.

…A Vivo NEX user found that…Baidu's voice input system…would activate the phone’s camera and sound recording function whenever the user opened any application…Baidu says that…allows the company collect and adjust to background noise so as to prepare for and optimize its voice input function. This was not reassuring for users — any microphone collecting background noise would also unquestionably capture the voices and conversations of a user and whomever she speaks with face-to-face…

These snooping features have not just affected people from mainland China, but all of those from outside the country who want to communicate with friends in China.

…In January 2018, a government-affiliated consumer association in Jiangsu province filed a lawsuit against Baidu’s search application and mobile browser for snooping on users’ phone conversations and accessing their geo-location data without user consent. But the case was dropped in March after Baidu updated its applications by securing users’ consent…

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Related companies: Baidu Telegram Messenger Tencent