Galaxy S22 Ultra periscope camera – creepy threat to your privacy, show photos: Ban long-range zoom?

The Huawei P30 Pro blew me away when it was released in March 2019. Of course, its (then) Leica-branded camera system was the center of attention, as Huawei was quickly establishing itself as the leader in smartphone photography.

But one camera, in particular, stood out because it was like nothing I had seen before. The modern implementation of the Periscope zoom lens came seemingly out of nowhere and flipped the script on smartphone zoom.

Interestingly, until 2019, ultra-wide-angle cameras were “all the hype”, and while they’re cool and somewhat useful, they were never able to get the same (literally) jaw-dropping reaction from my friend who saw a 50x zoom photo from a good periscope camera.

Before the modern periscope zoom lens takeover, punching in to take 5-10x zoom shots was unthinkable, but that’s not the case anymore. Fast forward to today, long-range zoom cameras on phones are:

  • A huge selling point on most premium flagships
  • Always a fun feature that gets a reaction from your friends
  • A reason to be more inspired, intentional, and artistic with your phone camera

Street photography, architectural photography, wildlife photography, portrait photography, action/sports photography – these are just part of the incredible suborders of “point-and-shoot” that long-range zoom cameras on phones allow now! Of course, the fact that you’ll always have this camera in your pocket is the real game-changer. You never need to think twice about catching that bird on the rooftop and your dog’s distance run at the park.

Long-range zoom on phones can also be very practical in more “normal” use cases, like if you’re trying to read a sign; recording your kids’ school performance from a distance, or catching a closer look of your favorite football/soccer star at the stadium, even if your cheap seat wouldn’t usually allow it.

So, it’s clear – the benefits of long-range zoom cameras on phones are a ton, and they unlock a photographic potential that smartphone enthusiasts had only dreamed of. But with great power comes great responsibility! I’m sure that’s the first time you’ve heard this totally original saying.

Anyway, let’s spy on some people!

Invasion of privacy: Long-range zoom on Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and Google Pixel 6 Pro – “too good” and creepy

Yes… Like pretty much everything in life, long-range periscope zoom cameras on phones can also have a downside. In that case, we’re talking about the sheer ability to… spy on people. Just when you thought Siri and Alexa were the real enemy…

Before I go any further, let me show you a few camera samples taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra at 10-100x zoom. They are courtesy of tech enthusiast and leakster Ice Universe and shared on Twitter.

This somewhat invasive Twitter thread is titled “Wish them happiness!” and before you go ahead and (rightfully) label this as creepy, let me say that I highly doubt the photographer’s intentions were evil. He’s clearly a tech geek who really likes his smartphone zoom. I know that because I can relate to it (although I don’t tend to take unwanted wedding photos).

Anyway, regardless of the intentions behind this particular set of photos, we can’t ignore the fact that the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s zoom capabilities can be creepy good. The fact that this specific example isn’t an offence, doesn’t mean that the next one won’t be…

Long-range zoom on phones like the Galaxy S22 Ultra, Pixel 6 Pro, and the upcoming iPhone 15 Pro Max: Ban, limit, regulate?

I want to make something clear – I love my Google Pixel 6 Pro’s periscope zoom camera (not romantically). But I guess it’s my citizenship behavior that kicks in and makes me write a story that appears to put my favorite phone camera on the spot…

So, I have no choice but to raise the only sensible question: Should long-range zoom on phones be banned or at least limited/regulated? And the truth is that… I’m not sure. This is why I’m trying to approach this topic with a healthy dose of nuance…

Those of you who remember “The Huawei ban” in detail might also recall that there were a bunch of conspiracy theories around the reason why Huawei was banned from doing business with American companies (which led to the company’s downfall in western markets).

One of them suggested that “the real reason America banned Huawei was because of its ‘insane’ 50x super spy lens”. The DailyMail published the story, which was accompanied by a video of the Huawei P30 Pro zooming in on boys playing chess.

Of course, that’s absolutely not the case, because the Galaxy S22 Ultra is now about 3x more capable than the P30 Pro when it comes to zoom (thanks to new hardware and computational photography) and it’s definitely for sale in the US!

Anyway, the other example of a smartphone camera that actually could’ve ended up being banned is from OnePlus. Back in 2020, a novel 5MP sensor found on the OnePlus 8 Pro lacked the usual color and IR filters that phone cameras usually have. This camera allowed the OnePlus 8 Pro see through some objects, including clothes, sort of like an X-ray. OnePlus ended up disabling the feature in China and India but then enabled it again after “adjustments” were made.

In the end: “I want my periscope zoom camera, but I don’t want to be spied on”

Despite some conspiracy theories and cameras that could accidentally see through clothes, governments around the world don’t appear to have interfered in the smartphone camera business, and that’s probably a good thing. Any phone-maker will tell you that government regulations hold innovation back. Ask Tim Cook & Co, who might be forced to abandon their beloved Lightning port in favor of USB-C because “Europe said so”.

But this one’s a bit different. We’re talking about an “in your face” privacy concern that could theoretically help “the bad guys” steal your private information, spy on you, or even listen in to your conversations. In case long-range zoom on phones didn’t scare you enough, phones like the Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S22 Ultra can also zoom in on your audio.

It’s a brilliant feature that uses clever AI and the rear microphones on your phone to isolate the audio that comes from a subject in the distance. It’s meant to come in handy when you want to record a concert, a street musician, or your kids (but from a distance).
Anyway, I guess it all boils down to your own perception of what’s acceptable and what’s not. I know for a fact that some “regular people” will find the photos in this article terrifying. I’ve met people at a hostel in the Canary Islands who used feature phones so “their country can’t spy on them”. And no, they weren’t from North Korea or China, but from a progressive country in the north of Europe. For the record, they also smoked marijuana (not during this very conversation).

In case you identify with them, there are feature phones with zero cameras that you can buy! And in case you’re at the other end of the spectrum, then you think “periscope zoom cameras are awesome” and you’d throw a tantrum if someone was to take them away…

So, tell me…

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