How much is too much?
Apart from image quality this year, the best thing about the Galaxy S21’s cameras is the flexibility they offer — the 12-megapixel main shooter is a solid performer, while the ultra-wide and telephoto cameras do a great job adding and subtracting space between you and your subject. Naturally, the Ultra amps up the excess a little further by packing two distinct telephoto cameras, one with a 3x optical zoom range and another with a 10x optical range. And then there’s Space Zoom, which — like last year — allows you to zoom in as far as 30x or 100x depending on which phone you’re using.
The feature mostly felt like a technical flex last year, but improvements to the way these phones stabilize these super-long-range photos are starting to make Space Zoom feel legitimately usable. But at what cost? Yes, being able to shoot reasonably detailed images of the moon at 100x is undeniably cool — but what about the ability to watch people from extreme distances? How does a company that accounts for roughly one-fifth of all the smartphones in the world balance the usefulness of this technology with some very obvious ethical implications?
Honestly, I was hoping for some kind of thorough, reasoned argument, but Samsung didn’t have one for me.
“I understand your concerns, but whenever we launch a product we receive thorough legal advice at a global level, and we only launch products we can be proud of,” Cho said. “I think you can be assured that we always follow through all of the legal processes and procedures thoroughly.”
Pride in a technical achievement is perfectly valid, and Cho is also right about legality — in the United States at least, it isn’t illegal to walk around with a camera and a super-long zoom lens and take photos of people in public spaces. Creepy, sure, but not illegal. But let’s not forget about privacy.
Frankly, it would be hard to forget about it — Samsung takes every opportunity during its new smartphone launches to tout its Knox on-device security, which features multiple layers of protection designed to shield your personal data from external threats. This year, the Galaxy S21s will also ship with a feature called Private Share that lets you control access to the documents and images you send to other Galaxy users, and even strip location data from photos you may want to pass around.
Clearly, your privacy is a major concern for Samsung, but our conversation didn’t leave me with the impression that the company was overly concerned with other people’s privacy when building out this feature. For what it’s worth, the company provided a statement on Joshua’s behalf a few days after our conversation:
“Our mission is to bring the best mobile experience to our consumers and make their lives more convenient and enriched. In order to do so, we’ve relentlessly pushed innovation to provide Space Zoom capabilities in our smartphones. With Space Zoom, people can capture more than ever before, even from a distance. So far, our innovation has been beneficial to many and we remain committed to democratizing the latest technologies. As with all our innovations, we hope and ask for consumers to use their technology responsibly and respectively.”