Facebook Portal isn’t listening to your calls, but may track data
When the initial buzz of Portal finally dies down, it’s the timing that will be remembered most. There’s 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. That’s a promise video chat technology brings, and Facebook’s technology stack delivers it in a compelling way.
Any praise the company might have received for the product’s execution, however, quickly took a backseat to another PR dustup. Here’s 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 company’s part.
“I wasn’t in the room with that,” Bosworth says, “but what I’m told was that we thought that the question was about ads being served on Portal. Right now, Facebook ads aren’t being served on Portal. Obviously, if some other service, like YouTube or something else, is using ads, and you’re watching that you’ll have ads on the Portal device. Facebook’s 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 site’s monetization model.
“[T]he thing that’s novel about this device is the camera and the microphone,” he explains. “That’s a place that we’ve 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 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 does not listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. This means nothing you say on a Portal video call is accessed by Facebook or used for advertising.
- Portal video calls are encrypted, so your calls are secure.
- Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t identify who you are.
Facebook is quick to explain that, in spite of what it deemed a misunderstanding, it hasn’t switched approaches since we spoke ahead of launch. But none of this is to say, of course, that the device won’t be collecting data that can be used to target other ads. That’s what Facebook does.
“I 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, it’s powered by Messenger, and in other spaces it’s powered by Facebook. All the same properties that a billion-plus people that are using Messenger are used to are the same as what’s 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. That’s 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, there’s 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, it’s a big lift to ask users to suddenly purchase a piece of standalone hardware they didn’t 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 we’re all familiar with and, frankly, up to the challenge for,” says Bosworth. “It’s good to have extra scrutiny. We’ve 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. It’s a headwind. On the other hand, it’s 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 won’t 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.
Facebook’s early goal for the product are likely fairly modest. In conversations ahead of launch, the company has positioned this as a kind of learning moment. That began when the company seeded early versions of the products into homes as part of a private beta, and continues to some degree now that the device is out in the world. When pressed, the company wouldn’t offer up anything concrete.
“This is the first Facebook-branded hardware,” says Bosworth. “It’s early. I don’t know that we have any specific sales expectations so much as what we have is an expectation to have a market that’s 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 doesn’t feel like a particularly fleshed-out device. There’s 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 couldn’t 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 it’s open to a broad spectrum of possibilities, based on consumer demand. It’s 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, there’s 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. There’s an obvious area where you can expand it. There’s also probably areas that are not obvious to us […] It’s 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 isn’t 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, it’s probably best to keep it that way.