+ Friday August 23rd, 2019

A week ago, a video started doing the rounds on Twitter. Initially shared by Mothership in Singapore, the video attracted a reasonable amount of social traction – some 17,000 retweets or so – but it didn’t go beyond that. Sometimes things go viral without attracting the mainstream media’s attention.

More recently, that video was shared by someone else, a Bessma Momani whose Twitter profile indicates she’s an academic at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Beyond sharing the video, there’s no indication that Momani has much to do with the origin of it, except that (in a reply to her original tweet) she takes some exception to comments made about her story.

Prof. Momani isn’t really relevant to this story any further, but here’s her tweet which shared Mothership’s original video:

What does the video show?

In a video captioned “Huawei’s new zoom-in camera phone feature is a privacy and surveillance nightmare”, the video shows someone filming through a window at some height, progressively zooming in some kids playing a board game at street level, below.

The original video – shared by Mothership.sg – is the exact same, and a reply posted to that included different footage of a Huawei P30 Pro zooming in on something across a street. That second video is shown below:

There is little doubt that this second video shows a P30 Pro on the left. This video isn’t further relevant either, except insofar as it purports – I guess – to add validity to the original video.

However, there’s a number of issues with that original video which we’re going to explore here.

How far away are the kids in the video?

Looking at the apartment building across the street in the video, one can conclude with some confidence that the video is filmed from approximately 26-28 stories above ground level. The average floor to ceiling height in most modern construction is around 9 feet (or a shade under 2.8 metres). Multiply that by 25 floors (let’s be conservative) and we’re looking at a height above ground of around  72.8 metres.

Now, let’s look at the kids playing the board game. They’re at the other end of a car park with plenty of cars in it, past a park and a few other things. This is a bit more guess than informed estimate, but let’s call it around 100 metres away from the base of the building the video was shot from.

If that’s so, we know two lengths of a right-angled triangle, so we can calculate the approximate distance from the camera to the children, as follows:

As you can see, this gives us a calculated distance of approximately 124 metres from the kids to the camera. Remember, this is only approximate, but it gives us a good idea.

Why does it matter how far away the kids are? Well, I live on a 4th floor apartment – we’re maybe 45 feet above ground level, or around 13 metres. Shooting straight down over the edge of the building, at 15X zoom, I can’t produce an image the same quality as the Mothership video shows.

Imagine trying to show that level of quality over a distance of 124 metres – almost 10x further away. That’s not possible, at least not on a Huawei P30 Pro.

What can the P30 Pro actually do?

While it’s true the Huawei P30 Pro can zoom up to 50X using a combination of 5X optical zoom and digital zoom on top, that’s only true for still photography. When filming video, the P30 Pro can only zoom out to 15X.

There’s also a few things to note about the P30 Pro’s zoom:

  • At 0 – 5X zoom, the P30 Pro uses the main sensor, not the telephoto lens array.
  • Between 5X and 10X zoom, the P30 Pro can use either the main sensor or the telephoto, but it prefers the telephoto and will flick after a second or two.
  • Over 10X, it uses the telephoto lens exclusively.

What this means is that there is a noticeable jump between approx 5-10X zoom and beyond. So much so, in fact, that a video filmed across this transition would visibly jump on the screen, and depending on the subject, the subject would move quite a lot in frame. I’ve experienced this myself trying to zoom in on the moon – up to about 10X zoom it stays steady, and then when switching to telephoto, it jumps such that the moon typically moves off the screen entirely.

What does the video actually show?

Contrast this with the video shown above, there’s no discernible jump at any point in the zooming in.

Except at one point, where it becomes apparent that a pure optical zoom makes way for a hybrid optical/digital zoom. However, the lack of lateral movement is strongly indicative that this was shot on a single lens camera, not a multi-camera setup as on the P30 Pro.

The camera also shows a zoom well in excess of 15X zoom; it’s not possible to estimate exactly what level zoom we’re looking at here, but a conservative estimate is over 30X zoom – something the P30 Pro cannot do when filming video.

The video also shows a level of stabilisation that the Huawei P30 Pro simply isn’t capable of.

Optical image stabilisation can only do so much, and it doesn’t work nearly so well once you’re in digital zoom territory. The P30 Pro can zoom with relative stability over a short range, but once it jumps beyond 10X, that stability is much, much harder to achieve.

Even with a tripod, there is appreciable hand-wobble owing to fingers touching the screen – either to slide the zoom button, or to pinch-to-zoom on the display. In short, zooming on the P30 Pro is not a smooth process. This might actually be why video zoom is capped at 15X, because beyond that, it would be almost impossible to shoot a video you’d actually want to use.

Regardless, the video does NOT show this kind of wobble. If anything, the video shows a very stable, progressive zoom from the window 25 stories up to the kids at ground level. Too stable, in my view.

No, the video doesn’t show a P30 Pro zooming in 30X or so while recording video.

Instead, it shows a compact zoom camera or something like a Nikon Coolpix P1000 which is most definitely capable of the significant zoom shown in this video. The zoom progression also has a distinctly uniform progression to it, the kind you’d see from using a W/T knob on a camera which physically adjusts the distance between glass lens components, not from a pinch-to-zoom on a touchscreen.

Why does it matter if the video is real or not?

This video has formed the basis for a bit of coverage around the world today, calling the Huawei P30 Pro a privacy and surveillance risk, a spy tool, and all manner of other things.

The problem is, the video is (in our opinion) a fake, and thus the coverage is predicated (if not based) on a lie.

Stories appeared online today (that we’ve seen) at the ABC, 10daily / The Project TV, and even over in the UK at The Sun. There have been a few other places, but those are the main ones.

There’s problems with that coverage too, such as the ABC citing a single source from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (a conservative-leaning think-tank) as an “expert” on a story supposedly about photography and digital zoom (which makes no sense), not knowing that the P30 Pro was actually on sale, and not having used or spoken to anyone who’d actually used a P30 Pro.

The other stories have similar issues.

Why does that matter?

If the journalists in question had spoken to anyone who had used a Huawei P30 Pro – or indeed, used one themselves – they’d have known that the source video was a fake, and this wouldn’t be a story. They’d have realised the P30 Pro is physically incapable of producing video the likes of the original video shared by Mothership and Prof. Momani, and there the story would’ve died.

Where’d this come from?

That’s anyone’s guess. Is it a competitor seeking to cause negative media coverage for Huawei? Is it someone just trying to get some likes on social media? Who knows, and it probably doesn’t matter.

The fact is, the fake isn’t a very good one, and more than a cursory glance reveals it for what it is.

Having discussed this video – and its questionable legitimacy – with a number of Australia’s fairly well known tech journalists, we’re of the same mind. It’s a fake.

As a separate issue, sure, having a telephoto camera that can zoom to 50X in your pocket might well be a privacy concern, but the imputation is that Huawei’s P30 Pro can somehow read pin numbers from across the street, or read someone’s notes or private writings from some distance away.

Many of us have experienced the P30 Pro’s zoom, and while it’s certainly interesting, it’s nowhere near stable enough to do any of what’s alleged. I guess if any of the mainstream media reporting this had bothered to use the phone, or interview anyone that had, this story mightn’t have shown up at all.

Chris Rowland   Managing Editor

Chris Rowland

Chris has been at the forefront of smartphone reporting in Australia since smartphones were a thing, and has used mobile phones since they came with giant lead-acid batteries that were "transportable" and were carried in a shoulder bag.

Today, Chris publishes one of Australia's most popular technology websites, Ausdroid. His interests include mobile (of course), as well as connected technology and how it can make all our lives easier.

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Manoj Bhandari
Ausdroid Reader

The tin foil hat company’s share prices might have gone really high.

Ryan
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Ryan

Huawei and spying? A journo’s wet dream.

Adam
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Adam

I don’t see what the drama is. No one says a Canon camera with 50x zoom is a privacy nightmare. Whether it takes video or photos is a moot point, I wouldn’t want anyone taking photos of my children (not that I have any) any more than I would want them taking videos, but I couldn’t stop them doing it with any camera or phone in a public place. A potential smear campaign against the P30 is the least interesting part of this article.

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