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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 Portal and Portal+ review: Video chat takes center stage


Smart camera algorithms follow your movements. Facebook was set to launch Portal -- its first consumer hardware -- at this year's F8 developer conference. However, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal still fresh in people's minds, the company, perhaps wisely, opted to introduce its connected cameras for the home instead. While Facebook hasn't exactly mended its reputation, the Portal and the Portal+ are finally ready for their public debut. The key feature with both Portals is a smart camera algorithm that follows you around the room as you're talking. It's not a bad idea, and I like that there are other features like apps and Alexa, making both Portals viable Echo Show rivals. The question remains, however, whether or not you deem Facebook to be trustworthy enough to have a Portal in your home. First, I'll go over the differences between the two Portals. The "normal" $199 Portal has a 10-inch screen and looks similar to Amazon's Echo Show except it's white instead of black and the speakers are underneath the display (instead of behind it). Then there's the $349 Portal+, which has a large 15.6-inch display that rotates from landscape to portrait mode. Both have decent displays with good color and contrast -- the smaller Portal has a 1,280 x 800 resolution while the larger Portal+ is 1,920 x 1080. The Portal+ obviously takes up way more room, which I found to be pretty overwhelming. It barely fits between my kitchen counter and cabinets, and when it's in landscape mode it doesn't leave a lot of room on either side for other countertop items. I also think it's pretty ugly. For a device that's supposed to be part of your home, it sticks out like a sore thumb. If I had to choose a Portal based on design alone, I would definitely opt for the Portal over the Portal+. The larger Portal+ certainly has better video quality, and the portrait mode is useful in some instances (I'll get to that shortly), but I'm not sure if the tradeoff is worth it. Other smart displays like Amazon's Echo Show and the Lenovo Smart Display offer video chat, so the idea behind Portal isn't new. The two Portals, however, step it up with several features that make video chat the focus, rather than an afterthought. For one thing, it works with Messenger, which already has millions of users. Another is that the software and camera are designed to enhance conversations by following whoever's talking. Before we get into that, though, let's talk about setup. I tested the Portal+ with my colleague Roberto Baldwin, who used the regular Portal. Obviously, the first step was to set it up with my Facebook account, which involved going to the Facebook app while the Portal was in pairing mode. You have the option to set up as many as four accounts, ostensibly for each person in your home, so you can switch between via settings. After that, the Portal automatically pulled in all my contacts, which allowed me to add them to my Favorites list. Because it's one of the first things you see when you wake the device, it's much easier to call your Favorites. Additionally, when someone on your Favorites list comes online, the Portal will beep to let you know. To make a call, you select the person's profile photo or use Portal's voice assistant (more on that later). For example, I could say "Hey, Portal, call Roberto Baldwin" from across the room instead of having to tap the screen. As with the Messenger app, you can set your availability status to be on or off whenever you like. The Portals also have a Home/Away function, so that it only rings when you're home and goes into standby mode when you're out of the house. It sets this automatically based on the geolocation of your phone. The key feature of both the Portal and Portal+ is the 12-megapixel camera that sits above the display. During calls with Roberto, I tapped the picture-in-picture mode so I could see how I looked on camera as well. I was impressed with the wide 140-degree field of view, which captured my entire open-concept kitchen and living room in a single screen. I imagine this is especially useful when you're chatting with large groups of people, as everybody can likely be in the shot at once. More important, the cameras use AI and algorithms to track your movements, keeping you perfectly in the frame as you walk around the room. Despite my initial skepticism about this, I have to admit it was really impressive. The shot pans around, zooming in and out, almost like a professional cinematographer, and I was never out of frame no matter how much I pranced around. It even followed me when I crouched on the floor. Flip the Portal+ screen to portrait mode and the shot automatically reframes to center on just the other person, making it perfect for one-on-one calls (more on that below). It's especially ideal if the other person is on a phone, as most people hold their phones vertically to chat anyway. I'll admit, the movements were so smooth that it verges on a little creepy, as if the camera lens was physically following me around. However, it remains perfectly still -- all of that aforementioned tracking is done with software. This really comes into play in Spotlight mode, which is a way to focus on a specific person (when there are multiple people in a room). Simply double-tap on a person's face, and the Portal automatically zooms in on them, following their head movements as they move and speak. I can see how this is especially useful for keeping track of fidgety kids. I'm fairly disappointed, however, that Spotlight mode doesn't seem to work on dogs or cats. It's also a surprisingly refreshing way to have a video chat. Instead of being held captive by the hardware, you're free to go about your daily life, preparing dinner or chasing after the dogs, without losing the person on the other line. I naturally found myself walking around the kitchen to put away the dishes or just grabbing a bite to eat. Facebook says that one of the ideas behind Portal is to make it feel like the person is right there in the same room as you, and I definitely felt that. Of course, if you don't want the camera following you around, you can enable Fixed Camera view, which keeps the screen in a fixed shot. There are a few other cute video-chat features, like augmented-reality filters that overlay your face or environment with amusing effects. Another is StoryTime, which lets you tell a dramatic story with the help of teleprompter text, complete with animations, graphics and sound on the recipient's end. This is clearly meant for entertaining kids. Another neat trick is the option to listen to Spotify tunes together. If you want to share a song with your friend, you can tap Spotify, play a song and you'll both hear it at the same time. There's even smart noise-canceling tech to handle the song volume separately, so you can pump up the volume to the max on your end, while your friend can lower it on theirs. I tried this out with Roberto, and it worked as promised. Yet I have to wonder if anyone actually does this in real life -- I don't remember the last time I shared a song I liked over the phone when I could just shoot them a URL. Both Portals support groups calls of up to seven people. I tried this with Roberto on the Portal and a couple of other colleagues on the Messenger app on their phones. You can add people to an existing call by selecting them from your Contacts list. Once they answered, all of them appeared on my screen at once, sort of like the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. The larger screen on the Portal+ really comes into use here, as I liked being able to see everyone's faces on such a big display. You can also transfer calls between Portal and your phone's Messenger app. Simply tap the "Transfer call from [contact]" notification on your phone (if transferring from Portal to phone) or select the transfer icon on the top right corner of the app (if doing it the other way round). When not on a call, the Portals can be used as smart displays. They come with several apps, such as Newsy, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, Food Network and Facebook Watch, with more to come. But the app experience isn't perfect. The YouTube app, which is essentially just a browser shortcut to YouTube.com, doesn't have an intuitive interface. Scrolling through the videos, for example, resulted in stuttery clicks instead of smooth swipes. The Food Network app seems like a good idea, as it replicates the cooking guides found on other smart displays, but it lacks essentials like ingredients lists and step-by-step instructions. Plus, there's no Search function, so I can't even look up a specific recipe. What makes things confusing is that the Portal and Portal+ come with two voice assistants. There's "Hey Portal," which is used for device controls and calls, and Amazon's Alexa, which is used for other functions. If you want to make calls, you have to use "Hey Portal." But when you want to play Spotify, ask for the weather, set a timer and so forth, you have to use Alexa. "Hey Portal" can also be used for Facebook-specific services. For example, I could say "Hey Portal, play Facebook Watch" to launch the social network's streaming-video service. For some reason, however, I can't use Alexa to do so. In fact, neither Alexa nor "Hey Portal" work with some of the aforementioned apps, like YouTube or Food Network. I found it all a little perplexing and mixed the two voice assistants up constantly during my testing. That said, the collaboration between Facebook and Amazon isn't final. According to Facebook, Portal has incorporated Amazon's Smart Display SDK, and the companies are working closely to improve the experience on the Portal and Portal+. Plus, access to Prime Video and other Amazon services are coming in 2019. As far as sound quality goes, it's not great, but it's not terrible. The Portal+ comes with 20-watt speakers plus a 4-inch sub, so it sounds slightly better than the Portal, which has only 10-watt speakers. Of course, neither are as good as dedicated speakers like Sonos, and they're not quite as powerful as the latest Echo Show. Still, both had loud, punchy volume and decently crisp audio. I wouldn't use them as my primary devices for listening to music, but they certainly work in a pinch. Last but not least, we have to talk about privacy. There's a button on both Portals that shuts off both the camera and the microphone via an electronic switch. Both also come with a physical camera lens cover if you're feeling extra paranoid or if you want to shut the camera off but still want to use the microphone for voice functions. I did wish that the camera lens cover was built in to the hardware instead of being a separate piece of plastic that I might lose, but it's better than not having one. You can also set up a passcode so your kids can't make random calls to your friends. According to Facebook, all of the video chats are encrypted and the company doesn't listen, view or keep records of your calls. The AI on the camera and voice features are run locally, not on Facebook's servers. Though the camera does use the shape of your face and voice to track your movements, there's no facial-recognition technology at work here -- it can't differentiate between your face and someone else's, for example. Like on Amazon's Echo devices, your voice history is stored online, but you can delete it manually. You can delete your Portal's voice history by going to your Facebook Activity Log, and Alexa history can be deleted by going into the Alexa app. But not everything is as it seems. Over a week after Portal's announcement, Facebook said the company does collect some types of information from video chats, such as usage data like length and frequency of calls, and that that information could be used to serve you ads. Facebook's business model is based on advertising, so this isn't exactly surprising. But the fact that the company wasn't forthcoming about this is a little concerning. When you add to that the recent massive data breach of as many as 50 million users along with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I have to admit that I'm a little wary of it. Of course, that's not to say that Amazon products haven't been accused of listening in on people's homes, either, and it's a risk that every consumer has to keep in mind when investing in a smart speakers. It's all about whether you trust that your data is safe with these companies. Unfortunately for Facebook, it hasn't done a lot to earn anyone's trust lately. Facebook's Portal line is not a bad idea; a smart display that puts video chat at the forefront is pretty clever, and though it's a little creepy, a camera that follows you around adds to a sense of social presence with someone even if they're far away. Other features like YouTube and Alexa integration are great too, as they make it more of an Echo Show rival. At the same time, however, it doesn't quite match up to other smart displays. It doesn't have a step-by-step cooking guide, there's no built-in browser like on the Echo Show, and you can't use it to view the feed from your home-security cameras. Not to mention that having two voice assistants is really confusing, and not all of Amazon's Smart Screen features are here. If you and your family rely on Messenger for communications, I can see giving Portal a shot. In that case, I would recommend the cheaper and smaller Portal, which costs $199; $349 for the larger Portal+ is a little too much money, and I don't think it's practical for most people. In the end, however, it's up to you whether you trust Facebook enough to have one of its cameras in your home.