The 50x digital “SuperZoom” on Huawei’s latest smartphone reportedly gives users the ability to read writing and take pictures of a small animal from hundreds of metres away, but there are fears the technology could also encourage some to record citizens punching in their ATM security pin from across the road.
Technology experts have so far been divided on the P30 Pro’s unmatched photography capabilities – including 5x optical zoom in addition to the digital zoom – with some praising it as a “breakthrough” while others warn it could present privacy and security dangers.
In comparison, the latest iPhone XS Max has 2x optical zoom and 10x digital zoom.
According to Huawei, the new device is equipped with a Leica four-camera system: a standard camera, an ultra-wide angle camera, a “time-of-flight” camera, and a new “periscope-like” lens in a fourth telephoto camera – it also features 10x hybrid zoom combining various technologies to enhance quality.
Experts point out that while professional camera lenses and telescopes can already perform the same job, it’s the portable and pocketable nature of the new devices that could be concerning.
Fergus Hanson, head of international cyber policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was a “transformative leap” in terms of making that type of technology ubiquitous.
Huawei P30 pro challenges iPhoneXS Huawei has been able to prevent jitter and can also map to the opposite job information by dynamically zooming in to 50 times! However, XS is disastrous even in a static environment!!!#HuaweiP30Pro #HuaweiP30 pic.twitter.com/1buH258dnT
— 亿年老受 (@XIONG57856259) April 14, 2019
However, he said he could also imagine many scenarios where the same kind of technology might provide enhanced options for undermining security, such as reading sensitive documents from very far away.
“It’s basically making everyone a potential spy,” Mr Hanson said.
“Even if you might not have a line of sight of another human being, your every action may be scrutinised in enormous detail.
“I guess it’s like this sort of creepy guy at the beach with a wide-angle lens camera, and bringing that to your everyday life, and having that person potentially around everywhere.”
A similar privacy problem has already reared its head in South Korea, where authorities are tackling a spy camera epidemic in which women have been filmed without their knowledge.
‘A new privacy reality we’re just going to have to live with’
Although smartphones are nowhere near as sneaky as spy cameras, increasing zoom capacity means a stealthy photo of you or your dinner plate could be taken from hundreds of metres away without you ever noticing.
Or perhaps someone could unintentionally – or intentionally – capture a snippet of a personal memo or sensitive document that was meant to remain private.
US President Donald Trump had a similar experience last year when the cameras captured memo phrases including “I hear you” and “What can we do to help you feel safe”? on his handwritten notes before meeting with survivors and family members of the Florida high school shootings.
While many videos circulating on social media claiming to depict the P30 Pro’s capabilities have been purported to be fake, Huawei celebrated the same functionality at a product launch by highlighting its ability to read writing on the side of the Eiffel Tower from very long distances away.
“There are 72 artists, scientists and engineers that contributed to the Eiffel Tower, their names are on the tower, and from far away [the P30 Pro] can take a photo of their names, breaking the boundary of distance,” Huawei CEO Richard Yu announced during the Paris release.
The ABC has not been able to independently verify the camera’s capabilities as the phone is not yet available in Australia.
However, Western Australian photographer Christian Fletcher — who regularly uses a Huawei P20 Pro for his work (it has similar but less-powerful capabilities) — said many of the videos appear legitimate.
Mr Fletcher added, however, that there are other considerations that would make the lens’ invasiveness less ubiquitous, such as how steady a user could hold the device while operating such a zoom.
“Obviously zooming that far in, any slight movement of the phone will make [the image] really dance around,” he told the ABC.
“If you could keep it still enough, and you keep the focus from tracking in and out, you could possibly [see the pages of a book someone’s reading from far away].
“From the videos I have seen online, Huawei has made major advances in the image stabilisation but without actually using the phone myself, I can’t say definitively.”
50x zoom underneath the CN Tower on the Huawei P30 Pro!
You can actually see people doing the EdgeWalk! pic.twitter.com/31pEteo2AD
— Canoopsy (@Canoopsy) April 14, 2019
Cyber-security expert Mr Hanson meanwhile says that increased capabilities such as these – whether now or in the near future – are bound to change the way people behave.
“It’s just one of those new privacy realties that we’re just going to have to come to live with, but it’s certainly a fairly invasive technology that’s upon us,” Mr Hanson said.
“I think it’s going to cause people to change the way they engage in public spaces and even in private spaces as well.”