Facebook wants you to put a Portal camera and microphone in your home

Facebook's Portal camera doesn't have end-to-end encryption, which could make it handy for police to tap your video calls.

Just say no when it comes to Facebook’s Portal video chat device. This is the same company that has consistently taken steps that are bad for privacy — working from a mindset of it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. And now it wants you to put its camera and microphone-enabled device in your home? Oh, hell no!

Facebook’s Portal tablets come in two flavors, the $199 10-inch 720p Portal and the $349 15-inch 1080p Portal+. The company claimed it started working on a “privacy-first plan” for Portal two years ago. The devices were supposed to launch in May, but Facebook had decided by March to delay the launch because it was embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Not even two weeks ago, Facebook admitted to a breach that affected 50 million people.

The timing of the launch is curious, as now doesn’t seem the best time to be asking people to rely on Facebook to protect their privacy and security, although it is just in time for the devices to start shipping in November before the holidays.

Ad-free service — for now

While Facebook currently claims it won’t plaster ads on the screen “at this time,” it admitted to the BBC that software on the device could eventually “trigger a cat food promotion if it spotted a pet in shot.” Facebook is all about ads, so to believe that ads won’t be involved in the Portal endeavor is naïve. A spokesman told the BBC, “We're not doing anything today, and we'll be very transparent and clear publicly if we do start to do something beyond that.”

People have long claimed that Facebook “listens” via their phones and then serves up ads that are connected to conversations. Facebook has consistently denied that happens, but do you really think giving it access to view inside your house as you make calls would not eventually end up being used to help target ads? The company certainly does not claim this will happen, but it is the same company that used “security” phone numbers for two-factor authentication to help target ads. It wasn’t exactly transparent about that.

The Portal's Smart Camera can automatically track you

Portal’s AI-powered Smart Camera is 12MP, has a 140-degree field of view and can automatically pan and zoom to track a person around a room or zoom out to automatically include other people who come into the room. If, for example, someone else walked into view of the camera, you could tap on their face on your screen and the camera will automatically track that person.

“Hey, Portal” is how you trigger the device to make to video calls, which Facebook says it “doesn’t listen to, view or keep the content of.” Both Portal versions include a 4-mic array, two in the front and two in the rear, and have 360-degree pickup capabilities. The collected voice history can be deleted via your Facebook Activity Log. If you use Alexa with Portal, then you need to go to that app to clear the collected voice commands, as well.

Facebook says, “For added security, Smart Camera uses AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera does not use facial recognition and does not identify who you are.” But you can’t make anonymous calls, as it runs though Messenger, meaning you need a Facebook account to use it and you are identified via that account.

If Facebook really cared about adding security, then why in the world is the call data not being protected by end-to-end encryption? The company claims “video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.” It’s just my opinion, but that sounds to me like the cake is a lie. Notice end-to-end is not mentioned, meaning Facebook could let Johnny Law Officer tap into the call. Wouldn’t you think Portal’s “privacy-first plan” which started two years ago would have included using Facebook’s WhatsApp which does have end-to-end encryption?

Yes, you can manually switch off the microphone, cover the camera, and even set Home and Away via your phone so Portal knows your location and if you are available to use the device for calling. Portal is really limited in what you can do with it other than chat. At launch, you can watch Facebook videos, get recipes from the Food Network, get video news from Newsy, or stream songs from Pandora or Spotify.

It’s your call if you think you need another screen in your house – a screen that belongs to Facebook to use Messenger, which you can already use to talk to other Facebook people with your phone or tablet – but do you really trust Facebook that much ... to be concerned more about your privacy and security than its bottom line?

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