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Facebook Portal would be great for my kid, but then I have to trust Facebook

Commentary: After years of scandal, it's a tough ask to bring a Facebook-connected camera into my home.

Facebook Portal 10

This is more than a camera. It's Facebook's latest foothold into my life.

James Martin/CNET

Whenever my 3-year-old son asks to call his grandparents, he shouts, "Let's FaceTime Mom-Mom!"

Facebook wants to change that, and on Wednesday it took a step in that direction, announcing a new picture frame-like Portal devices. Equipped with a camera and microphone, the new Portals offer promising features that make video chat easy and fun, such as automatically zooming in and out to show everyone in frame. Mark Zuckerberg and company promise they'll sport strengthened privacy protections too.

Still, Facebook's got a long hill to climb before I'll let any of its devices in my home. Facebook needs to convince me it'll handle my family's data with care. And not just because we're all pissed that it didn't before.

The world's largest social network, used by more than 2.4 billion people each month, has always wanted to become the connective tissue between me and my friends. After all, it's already become a shared photo library, a place to remind me of birthdays and a digital address book.

That next stage, changing where my son spends precious hangout time with his grandparents 3,000 miles away, will be a hard sell in my house.

It's not because we're uncomfortable with cameras in our home. We already have a slew of them. Two are connected to Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4. We also have a camera to check in on our rambunctious cat when we're away from home. And there are the cameras on all the phones, tablets and laptops littered around our place.

The problem is Facebook.

The implicit trust I placed in it when I signed up to use it shortly after its launch in 2004 has been trashed after a string of privacy scandals over the past few years. There was that time Facebook attempted to cover up that the data on tens of millions of people had been taken by an app developer and inappropriately sold to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that worked with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. There are the hundreds of millions of people who inadvertently shared misleading and false articles they'd seen on the social network that were created by Russian trolls. And there's the malfeasance by Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, who reportedly attempted to hinder investigations into Russian election meddling on their service.

Now Facebook wants me to buy a screen designed to look like a photo frame, but with an added camera and microphone.

"I haven't enjoyed the scrutiny that we've been under, but I certainly do value it because it is a window into expectations that weren't set correctly, or that weren't delivered on as promised," Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, who heads up Facebook's augmented and virtual reality efforts, said in an interview. "That is something we hold ourselves accountable for, and want to be better at."

No kidding.


Facebook is under increasing scrutiny for all its privacy screwups.

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Facebook is listening to our criticism, Bosworth said, and it's already responding. The new Portal devices, which are priced starting at $129 and cost up to 20% less than last year's models, have new features built in to answer exactly those questions.

Like last year, the company offers ways to turn off the microphone and cover up the camera. This year, when you set up the device, the company will now ask whether you'd like voice recordings of your requests anonymously sent to Facebook to be analyzed. The Portal will send those recordings and requests to its people to be analyzed, unless you change the default, unfortunately. But at least the company is asking.

Small progress is still progress.

This, Bosworth said, is how he plans to regain my trust: by being up front and taking these extra steps to help me feel informed.

"Now the work is setting expectations and delivering on them repeatedly over time," Bosworth added. "I feel confident we can do it."

We're all better off if he's right.

Facebook's Portal lineup for 2019 is cheaper and looks sleeker.

James Martin/CNET

Pushing forward

Portal doesn't just represent Facebook's latest effort to take on Apple's role in my family. It's also an example of what we can expect from Zuckerberg in the future.

In short, Facebook isn't going away and it's not going to back away from its mission "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."

To that end, Facebook executives touted the technological advances in new Portal software coming in October, which will power the new devices and last year's Portals, too. The software will be 50% better at understanding a person's posture, which will help the smart cameras to better follow kids as they run around the room during a call. Portals will work with WhatsApp video calling too. And they work with video streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, allowing you to watch your favorite movies and shows on these new small screens in your home.

Facebook says it will be more upfront about how it uses our data, such as with this Portal setup screen.


Facebook's also dropped the starting price for the Portals. It added the Portal Mini with an 8-inch display for $129. The Portal with a 10-inch display dropped to $179 (from $199) and the Portal Plus, with a 15.6-inch display, is $279 (down from $349). The company is also offering a new $149 Portal without a screen, called Portal TV, which you can hook up to a TV or monitor in your home.

"We're very pleased with the reception these products have had," Bosworth said. "Hopefully, that is allowing more and more people to get comfortable with these devices."

We'll see.