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Facebook Portal: Your privacy questions answered

Social network reveals more details about what data its new video chat device does and doesn't collect.

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Facebook's Portal Plus

James Martin/CNET

Facebook's new video chat devices Portal and Portal Plus are now available for purchase in the US, but the thought of putting another video camera and microphone in the home might make some consumers feel uneasy.

The social network has a bad track record when it comes to privacy and security. A massive security breach this year allowed hackers to steal personal information from 29 million Facebook accounts. Then there's the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed the data of roughly 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

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The timing might seem off. Facebook, though, says the company has seen a rise in video calls on its messaging apps but the experience isn't easy because users have to prop up their mobile phones or stand very close to the device. That's where the company thinks that Portal, which has a smart camera that automatically frames a person in a video call, can lend a helping hand. 

"You ship a product when its ready. You ship a product when you think people can benefit from it and we're definitely there," said Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, Facebook's vice president of virtual reality and augmented reality.

While Bosworth said the tech firm is aware of the climate surrounding Facebook, he noted the product is focused on connecting friends and family.  

Privacy experts say that with any smart device, consumers need to be aware of what information is being collected and proactively manage that data. Facebook on Wednesday shared more details about the privacy and security safeguards the tech firm put in place. Still, it'll be up to consumers to decide if that's enough to trust the social network. 

Here's what we know so far:

What information does Portal collect? Facebook points out that the tech firm won't be listening to, viewing or keeping the contents of Portal's video calls, but that doesn't mean the company isn't tracking any information about you. The company said it processes data such as the frequency and length of your calls, but not what you're saying in them.

"For example, we may use the fact that you make a lot of video calls to inform some of the ads you see," the company said. And because the video chat device is tied to Facebook Messenger, information such as how often you use a feature or app may be used for ad targeting outside of Portal like on the main social network or Instagram. The device also includes Amazon's smart assistant Alexa, but a Facebook spokesperson said it doesn't see or retain any data from those interactions. 

If Facebook Portal crashes, the tech firm keeps a record of that data along with user feedback information. It also logs your voice commands after you say "Hey Portal," but Facebook says that data won't be used for ad targeting.

Some of the data Facebook collects is used to improve their products. The tech firm wants to know the location of Messenger calls to make sure they have the proper "internet infrastructure backbone links" to power those calls in areas where they're popular, Bosworth said. 

"You can try to not collect that data, but all you're going to do is provide a worse service for consumers," he said. 

Does Facebook Portal record videos? The device doesn't allow users to record a video or broadcast a Facebook Live video.

"I think there are a bunch of things we can add that will increase the market adoption, increase the product market fit, but we're not even at that point yet. We're at the point right now where we're just trying to make sure people understand what it is," Bosworth said. 

Can I delete my voice command history on Portal? Yes, users can delete a history of their voice commands in their Facebook activity log.

Will Portal's smart camera identify me or my family members? No, Facebook says the camera doesn't identify people on the video call. 

What other privacy and security controls has Facebook put in place? Users can cover the camera lens, mute calls and press a button to shut off the camera and microphone. Facebook also says the calls are encrypted and Portal's artificial intelligence technology runs locally, not on the tech firm's servers.

"When you turn the microphone and camera off, it doesn't just like turn them off in software. It actually turns the power off on the back plane that powers those cameras and microphones so they can't be turned on in software," Bosworth said.

Will there be Facebook ads on Portal? You won't see Facebook ads on the device for now, but users could see ads from third-party apps downloaded to the device such as Spotify and Pandora. A Facebook spokesperson said the tech firm doesn't have any plans to show Facebook ads on Portal in the future.

"I don't think anyone will really notice any change in how they're advertised to," Bosworth said. "If they use Messenger then they're already pretty comfortable with the data collection we're doing."

First published Nov. 7, 9:01 p.m. PT.
Update, 11:05 a.m. PT: Adds remarks from interview with Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's vice president of virtual reality and augmented reality.

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