When smartphones came around, it was still important for them to be able to make calls or to be… phones. Today, this is less true than ever since we’ve changed the way we communicate, but also, our focus has completely shifted towards the “smart” side of the devices. Interestingly, the “smart” side might turn out to be the “dark” side too.In other words, have smartphones become too smart, and are some features allowing you to go beyond some ethically accepted norms? Perhaps, stealing your classmate’s notes, copying someone’s credit card details, or simply… spying on your neighbors. Let’s investigate!
Long-range zoom on smartphones: Magnifying, and… terrifying?
While the first photo looks like I’m capturing the beauty of the season of the falling leaves, and the second one looks artistic, the third one (20x) looks like… invasion of privacy. Won’t do it again. Promise. Also, nice pants, stranger. Shot on Pixel 6 Pro.
Let’s start with the most obvious one. I’ll begin by saying, I absolutely love the fact that smartphones now offer proper optical zoom. The first modern phone that brought long-range optical zoom was Huawei’s P30 Pro, so it’s not a coincidence that it’s been my daily-driver for over two years now.The composition, and level of expression you’re able to achieve with more magnification is completely different from what a standard focal-length lens can give you. I’ve taken some of my favorite vacation photos with the P30 Pro and with the 5x periscope zoom camera in particular. This makes it extremely difficult to go back to phones without long-range optical zoom.
But the P30 Pro was released over two years ago. Today, modern flagships offer up to 10x optical zoom, but the truth is that even phones with 4x and 5x zoom capabilities have a very far reach. Moreover, 20x to 100x digital zoom on such devices is surprisingly capable for the “right” or “wrong” scenarios.
It’s hard not to notice how this seemingly incredible feature can also be abused. Sure, if you’re a zoom-creep you can also buy a pocket camera, which will give you even better results at even longer distances, but the point is – smartphones have almost become an extension of our arms.
If you saw someone pointing a phone in one direction, you wouldn’t necessarily suspect they’re trying to peek through someone’s window, compared to when you see someone using a “proper camera” with a huge lens. Moreover, I’m sure most people aren’t even aware that phones with such zooming capabilities exist. Definitely not iPhone users anyway (oops).
So whether you’ll use your phone’s long-range zoom to read a sign in the distance, take a photo of the moon, or spy on your neighbour, currently, there’s nothing that can stop you.
Apple’s Live Text and Google Lens: Copy-paste is nice, but not when it involves your private information
This was taken at 20x zoom with the Pixel 6 Pro. The font size was set to 6, but Google’s clever AI managed to make out the text pretty well. Also, I guess I’m caught now…
The feature uses powerful AI algorithms to unlock text, captured in your photos. In other words – you can highlight and copy any text that’s visible (for the camera) on your photos. Of course, Google goes further, and can have Google Assistant read it out to you.
Live Text/Google Lens are incredible features, which can prove useful in many scenarios such as:
- When you want to copy-paste text, like a paragraph from your favorite novel, or a prescription
- Look up information/text from your photos without the need to type it separately
- Call a number without having to copy it
Really, the sky’s the limit. However, this might just be the problem. As you can see, in this example, a French student uses the Live Text feature introduced with iOS 15 to copy a classmates’ notes. Frankly, that’s kinda hilarious and cheeky, but what if this was more sensitive information?
Coming back to the zoom capabilities of modern phones, these can now be combined with Live Text/Google Lens to extract information from afar, and the victims wouldn’t even suspect or feel their device had been compromised. You can get this done in a blink of an eye. It’s borderline impossible to get caught. Not encouraging anyone!
That’s exactly what happens in the above-mentioned video – a student uses the zoom camera on the iPhone and copies the text from the screen. Now it’s good-spirited banter, but tomorrow it could be an elaborate fraud or a means of blackmailing someone. Food for thought, Apple and Google!
Magic Eraser: Magically erasing photobombers, objects, and… small crimes?
AirPods? What AirPods? What do you mean you left them on your desk? Here’s a photo evidence which clearly shows you didn’t.
And we come to probably the most fun new feature introduced with the Pixel 6. Magic Eraser is basically Google’s pocket-alternative to Photoshop. With just two clicks, you can erase people and objects from your photos. I’ve used Magic Eraser a couple of times, and it works remarkably well, especially with less busy backgrounds.
However (and yes, that’s where my mind goes), I can’t help but think of situations where the Magic Eraser could be used to trick people into believing “facts” that weren’t exactly facts. For example, you can prove someone “wasn’t there” when they actually were. Or you can convince someone an object wasn’t present at a certain place, when it really was.
Am I stretching the pizza dough a bit too far? Sure. Admittedly, I haven’t quite figured out exactly what crime could be committed with the help of Google‘s magical AI, but I won’t be surprised if the wonderful world of the internet fills in the blank sooner or later.
For the record, yes, you can achieve similar/better results in Photoshop or Snapseed, but the thing with the Pixel 6 and several other devices that support the feature (some Huawei and Samsung phones) is that they put this kind of power into everyone’s pocket.
Ultimately: Should you be worried about the direction of AI on smartphones?
Magic Eraser! I’m not sure what point I’m proving with this, but here we are…?
In the end, long-range zoom, Live Text/Google Lens, and Magic Eraser are some of my absolute favorite new features in the latest Pixel 6 Pro flagship. Google’s device inspired this story, in case it wasn’t clear.
But I also see the ethical dilemma that comes when companies like Apple and Google decide to put powerful hardware and software into the average consumer’s hands. Are our phones too capable, and can some of the “fun” and convenient AI features be used for harmful purposes? Unfortunately, that’s possible.
A similar dilemma came around when Apple launched AirTags – the tiny tracker that’s supposed to follow your items around, so you wouldn’t lose them. AirTags raised different questions – what if someone used an AirTag to track you?
So! Let’s see what the future holds… Meanwhile, you might want to be more vigilant around iPhones with iOS 15 and Pixels 6 devices. Put your notes away, and pull the drapes all the way if you know your neighbour owns a Galaxy S21 Ultra or a Pixel 6 Pro.