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Facebook Portal isn’t listening to your calls, but may track data


When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, its the timing that will be remembered most. Theres never a great time for a company like Facebook to launch a product like Portal, but as far as optics go, the whole of 2018 probably should have been a write-off. Our followup headline, Facebook, are you kidding? seems to sum up the fallout nicely. But the company soldiered on, intent to launch its in-house hardware product, and insofar as its intentions can be regarded as pure, there are certainly worse motives than the goal of connecting loved ones. Thats a promise video chat technology brings, and Facebooks technology stack delivers it in a compelling way. Any praise the company might have received for the products execution, however, quickly took a backseat to another PR dustup. Heres Recode with another fairly straightforward headline. It turns out that Facebook could in fact use data collected from its Portal in-home video device to target you with ads. In a conversation with TechCrunch this week, Facebook exec Andrew Boz Bosworth claims it was the result of a misunderstanding on the companys part. I wasnt in the room with that, Bosworth says, but what Im told was that we thought that the question was about ads being served on Portal. Right now, Facebook ads arent being served on Portal. Obviously, if some other service, like YouTube or something else, is using ads, and youre watching that youll have ads on the Portal device. Facebooks been serving ads on Portal. Facebook is working to draw a line here, looking to distinguish the big ask of putting its own microphones and a camera in consumer living rooms from the standard sort of data collection that forms the core of much of the sites monetization model. [T]he thing thats novel about this device is the camera and the microphone, he explains. Thats a place that weve gone overboard on the security and privacy to make sure consumers can trust at the electrical level the device is doing only the things that they expect. Facebook Portal+ reviewFacebook was clearly working to nip these questions in the bud prior to launch. Unprompted, the company was quick to list the many levels of security and privacy baked into the stack, from encryption to an actual physical piece of plastic the consumer can snap onto the top of the device to serve as a lens cap. Last night, alongside the announcement of availability, Facebook issued a separate post drilling down on privacy concerns. Portal: Privacy and Ads details three key points: Facebook is quick to explain that, in spite of what it deemed a misunderstanding, it hasnt switched approaches since we spoke ahead of launch. But none of this is to say, of course, that the device wont be collecting data that can be used to target other ads. Thats what Facebook does. So I sent my mom that newfangled Facebook PortalI can be quite definitive about the camera and the microphone, and content of audio or content of video and say none of those things are being used to inform ads, full stop, the executive tells TechCrunch. I can be very, very confident when I make that statement. However, he adds, Once you get past the camera and the microphones, this device functions a lot like other mobile devices that you have. In fact, its powered by Messenger, and in other spaces its powered by Facebook. All the same properties that a billion-plus people that are using Messenger are used to are the same as whats happening on the device. As a hypothetical, Bosworth points to the potential for cross-platform ads targeting video calling for those who do it frequently — a classification, one imagines, that would apply to anyone who spends $199 on a video chat device of this nature. If you were somebody who frequently use video calls, Bosworth begins, maybe there would be an ad-targeting cluster, for people who were interested in video calling. You would be a part of that. Thats true if you were using video calling often on your mobile phone or if you were using video calling often on Portal. Facebook may have painted itself into a corner with this one, however. Try as it might to draw the distinction between cameras/microphones and the rest of the software stack, theres little doubt that trust has been eroded after months of talk around major news stories like Cambridge Analytica. Once that notion of trust has been breached, its a big lift to ask users to suddenly purchase a piece of standalone hardware they didnt realize they needed a few months back. Certainly, the headwinds that we face in terms of making sure consumers trust the brand are ones that were all familiar with and, frankly, up to the challenge for, says Bosworth. Its good to have extra scrutiny. Weve been through a tremendous transformation inside the company over the last six to eight months to try to focus on those challenges. The executive believes, in fact, that the introduction of a device like Portal could actually serve to counteract that distrust, rather than exacerbate it. This device is exactly what I think people want from Facebook, he explains. It is a device focused on their closest friends and family, and the experiences, and the connections they have with those people. On one hand, I hear you. Its a headwind. On the other hand, its exactly what we need. It is actually the right device that tells a story that I think we want people to hear about, what we care about the most, which is the people getting deeper and more meaningful hashes of one another. If Portal is ultimately a success, however, it wont be because the product served to convince people that the company is more focused on meaningful interactions versus ad sales before. It will be because our memories are short. These sorts of concerns fade pretty quickly in the face of new products, particularly in a 24-hour news environment when basically everything is bad all the time. The question then becomes whether Portal can offer enough of a meaningful distinction from other products to compel users to buy in. Certainly the company has helped jumpstart this with what are ultimately reasonably priced products. But even with clever augmented reality features and some well-produced camera tracking, Facebook needs to truly distinguish this device from an Echo Show or Google Home Hub. This is the first Facebook-branded hardware, says Bosworth. Its early. I dont know that we have any specific sales expectations so much as what we have is an expectation to have a market thats big enough that we can learn, and iterate, and get better. This is true, certainly — and among my biggest complaints with the device. Aside from the aforementioned video chat functionality, the Portal doesnt feel like a particularly fleshed-out device. Theres an extremely limited selection of apps pre-loaded and no app store. Video beyond the shorts offered up through Facebook is a big maybe for the time being. During my review of the Portal+, I couldnt shake the feeling that the product would have functioned as well — or even better, perhaps — as an add-on to or joint production with Amazon. However, that partnership is limited only to the inclusion of Alexa on the device. In fact, the company confirms that we can expect additional hardware devices over the next couple of years. As it stands, Facebook says its open to a broad spectrum of possibilities, based on consumer demand. Its something that could even, potentially, expand to on-device record, a feature that would further blur the lines of what the on-board camera and microphone can and should do. Right now, theres no recording possible on the device, Bosworth says. The idea that a camera with microphones, people may want to use it like a camera with microphones to record things. We wanted to start in a position where people felt like they could understand what the device was, and have a lot of confidence and trust, and bring it home. Theres an obvious area where you can expand it. Theres also probably areas that are not obvious to us […] Its not at all fair to say that this is any kind of a beta period. We only decided to ship it when we felt like we had crossed over into full finished product territory. From a privacy perspective, these things always feel like a death by a million cuts. For now, however, the company isnt recording anything locally and has no definitive plans to do so. Given the sort of year the company has been having with regards to optics around privacy, its probably best to keep it that way.

Facebook's Portal video chat displays go on sale in the US


Portal will set you back $199, while Portal+ will cost you $349. Facebook's Portal and Portal+ smart displays are now available in the US via Amazon, Best Buy and their own, ahem, portal. The social network created the devices with video chats in mind, giving them AI-powered cameras that can track you as you move around while talking to friends and family. It can call anyone on Messenger, not just someone who also has a Portal, so you can use it to call most people in your friends list. Engadget Senior Editor Devindra Hardawar got the chance to see it in action in October and found that the picture on screen shifted smoothly to keep the person in frame. He said it looked even better in portrait mode -- almost as if the other person were truly in the same room. In addition to its AI-powered cameras, Facebook's Portal devices also have built-in access to Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, along with a bunch of security features. It has a camera and microphone off button, a camera lens cover and the ability to set up a four-to-12 digit passcode. Facebook is also attempting to allay any misgivings by publishing details about the devices' security. It said it will "not listen to, view or keep the contents" of Portal video calls, and hence cannot use them for advertising purposes. Presumably, that means you won't suddenly get, say, diaper ads if you use the device to plan a baby shower for your BFF. Also, Portal calls are encrypted, and the social network says it will not show Facebook ads on the device at all. The 10-inch Portal (with a 1280 x 800 screen) will set you back $199, while the 15-inch Portal+ (with a 1920 x 1080 pivoting display) will cost you $349. However, you can get $100 off the total price if you're buying any two of them this holiday season, so you can give the other one to a friend or a family member you talk to all the time.