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Facebook just released the Portal and Portal+ smart speakers.
Unlike the smart speakers we are used to, Facebook Portal is all about video calling.
Most smart features like calendar and weather are relegated to the built-in Alexa smart assistant and pushed to the back. Video calling is front and center and comes loaded with cutting-edge tech.
The smart camera can follow you around the room as you chat. It can also automatically widen the view to make sure everyone is seen.
The speaker also comes with advanced microphones that enhance the voice of whoever’s talking.
You can video call anyone with Facebook Portal or Messenger. You can also make a group call with as many as 6 people.
That’s good and all but we have to talk about the elephant in the room – privacy. For facebook, it’s an especially big elephant.
From the Cambridge Analytics scandal to the recent hack affecting millions of accounts, the last several months have been tough on the social network.
They’ve not only had to answer to their users, Mark Zuckerberg himself had to appear in Congress to explain all the shady stuff that’s been going on lately.
With such a checkered history, Mark is still convinced that people are willing to put a Facebook device with a camera and microphones in the homes.
I’m sure they’ve done a lot of research and surveyed focus groups to convince them that people will bite. But I think this is going to be a hard sell.
They know that too.
To try and assuage concerns, the Facebook Portal comes with plenty of privacy assurances. Here are the biggest ones.
1. Secure Calls
Facebook says they will not listen in to any of the calls you make. The calls are not recorded or stored in any way. Only the call logs are collected.
2. Deleting Voice Commands
The microphones are designed to wake up and connect to Facebook’s servers only when they hear the command “Hey Portal”. Otherwise, they don’t record anything.
Your voice commands are recorded but you can delete them at any time from your Facebook Activity Log.
3. No Facial Recognition
Facebook promises that the camera is not equipped with facial recognition. In fact, it’s not connected to Facebook’s servers. It runs on locally-stored AI software.
4. Physically Disconnects Camera and Microphone
Most smart speakers give you the ability to turn off the camera and microphone.
Facebook says that Portal’s disable function physically disconnects the camera and microphone and you have to press the button again to turn them on.
That means no one can remotely turn the camera or microphone on.
If you are still concerned or want to block the camera without turning off the microphone, Portal comes with a camera cover.
To further assure people that they are not just after more data for ads, Facebook says Portal will have no ads. However, third party services available in Portal might show their own ads.
This sounds assuring at first but as Recode reports, there’s a bit more that Facebook has not made clear.
At first Recode had reported that Facebook will not collect data of any kind to use in targeted advertising.
However, Facebook corrected the record later saying they can collect data and use it to target you with ads on Facebook.
So while you won’t get ads on Portal, Facebook will use data such as who you call and the apps you use to show you targeted ads in your newsfeed.
This is not very surprising. If anything, we’d have been more surprised if Facebook doesn’t collect any kind of data.
But they could have been clearer about it.
Even if the camera and microphone are secure enough, which they seem to be, many people are still concerned about giving away even more personal data to Facebook considering the company’s recent history.
It will be interesting to see whether the Portal becomes as big of a hit as other smart speakers in the market.
For all intents and purposes, Portal seems to be as much a video calling smart speaker as it is another data-collection opportunity for Facebook.
Will you buy it?