As an open platform, Android gives developers and users a lot of wiggle room to do things that some like iOS would never allow them to. Sometimes, that delivers power and functionality that only Android users are able to enjoy. But like any sort of power, it can and has been abused. A recurring theme in the upcoming Android P seems to revolve around fine-tuning control over certain aspects of the operating system. The latest is a new limitation that prevents idle background apps from using the camera, which is a win for privacy but potentially for theft as well.
On the surface, this is a much-needed and long-overdue restriction. In previous Android versions, it has been possible to silently record videos without the user’s knowledge by reducing the camera viewfinder to a practically invisible 1px size. There will be no other way for the user to know that the camera is in use by a potentially malicious app.
Android Oreo actually already limited that case by requiring apps that are actively using the camera to display a notification. Even if the viewfinder is not visible, users would at least notice something out of the ordinary in their notification panel. Android P will further tighten the noose on wayward apps by not even letting apps running in the background to use the camera.
There is, however, one potentially valid use case of not letting the “user” know that the camera is currently recording. There exists a class of anti-theft apps that, at a user’s request, will start recording with the front-facing camera to potentially capture images of the thief, or at least the surroundings, without alerting them to the fact. Android P’s new policy would render those features useless.
Coincidentally, Google’s crackdown on abusive apps has already hit such anti-theft security apps. Last November, security app Cerberus published a warning from Google that required them to notify users that they are being tracked. While indeed a reasonable requirement, it also means thieves will know that they are being tracked as well and employ tactics to circumvent that.