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Smart Speakers & Displays

Facebook's privacy crisis makes its Portal video device a tougher sell than ever

Commentary: We were worried about Facebook long before the Portal emerged, but the smart display is a cry for help from Mark Zuckerberg's social media monolith.

The $199 Facebook Portal is currently on sale for $99 through May 12.

James Martin/CNET

Like many folks, I felt uneasy about the Facebook Portal from the jump.

Having been an only intermittent Facebook user over the past several years made me an even less willing participant when it came time to test the smart display and the company's pricier Portal Plus last fall. Did I have a Facebook account? Yes, technically. But it was as good as inactive save the odd toggle-share from Instagram that I rarely checked. 

Despite Instagram's propensity toward over-curated fakery (#blessed) and the fact that it's a Facebook company (irony abounds), it's still largely considered the "good side" of social media. It's the place guaranteed to have adorable puppies, drool-worthy food and far-flung travel destinations when you need a break from the more serious side of the internet. 

Facebook has a different reputation. It's the underbelly of the ol' world wide web, complete with awkward familial spats over political convictions, cryptic messages from college sweethearts and, worst of all -- multiple, privacy-threatening data leaks

So it was surprising when Facebook announced the camera-equipped, Facebook-Messenger-dependent Portal ($199) and Portal Plus ($349) in 2018, amid regular breaking news stories about how Facebook misused user information and then tried to downplay it to the loyalists remaining on the platform once it was uncovered. 

What's more, Portal cameras aren't like most smart display cameras. They have particularly smart tech that differentiates between people and houseplants and can therefore follow you around a room -- not exactly the device you want from a company cited for its privacy problems. 

Portal, interrupted

The Portal idea is sound in theory: Buy a Portal for yourself and give a friend or family member far away another Portal. Make dinner in your apartment while you video chat with your parents across the country. 

You can move around naturally within the Portal's field of view, pulling cheese, milk and butter from the fridge. (We're apparently making mac and cheese in this made-up scenario... and now I'm hungry.) You're fishing for the stock pot in that hard-to-reach spot in the lower cabinet across the kitchen and grabbing pasta from the pantry -- all within your parents' view as you catch them up on your week. 

The Facebook Portal is a video-chatting system first and foremost. Admittedly, and perhaps annoyingly, Portal does this job really well. It also offers a limited dose of smart home functionality via a built-in Amazon Alexa speaker, select apps including Newsy, Pandora and Spotify (Premium only) and Facebook's own "Hey Portal" voice assistant. 

Note: Facebook has temporarily dropped the price of the Portal to $99 and is offering it bundled with the Portal Plus for $200 off through May 12, just in time for Mother's Day, all while reports of privacy breaches continue to trickle in. And other news surfaced this week that Facebook is working on new AI tech for the Portal, Oculus and other upcoming, as yet unannounced Facebook products. Could Facebook be working on a rival to Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant in addition to its existing "Hey Portal" assistant?

A spokesperson told me over email that Facebook hasn't announced a new voice assistant, but rather that they "are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products." Hm. 

The Facebook Portal looks a lot like the Amazon Echo Show. It only works over Facebook Messenger, so you -- and the people you want to chat with -- have to have Facebook to use it. 

James Martin/CNET

Portal privacy and you

Anticipating our reticence to the Portal, Facebook detailed its smart display privacy policy on this support page.  While Facebook says it doesn't listen in on or "keep the contents" of your Portal chats, a spokesperson told us that Facebook does gather info about the calls you make to determine what ads to show. It won't listen in on the calls, but it will log the length and other data. The company shared more details in an email to Recode

"Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads," the Facebook spokesperson said. 

I wonder if Facebook execs ever discussed temporarily or permanently shelving Portal so its person-tracking camera didn't launch during the same time people were deactivating their accounts in outrage? But the company instead went for the "Hey, it's cool. You can totally trust us" vibe. That approach demonstrates a shocking level of tone deafness. (Again, I'll refer you to this story outlining many of Facebook's major privacy leaks and other serious issues the company's faced lately.)

Facebook isn't the only media company scaring the crap out of us, though. Amazon employs, you know, human people, to listen to your Alexa recordings. Creepy doesn't even come close to cutting it. 

Now playing: Watch this: Facebook’s pricey Portal Plus brings loved ones closer
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Do we really care though?

Perhaps most interestingly, this hasn't stopped people from buying Portals -- or Amazon smart speakers. CNET's own Rick Broida isn't bothered by Facebook's privacy stuff:

I'll just say I'm fully aware that every company on the planet is already collecting and sharing data about me in order to try to sell me stuff. And for the most part I'm not bothered by it. That's just me.

Well, maybe not just me: The Portal has a 4.6-star average rating from over 400 Best Buy customers and a 4.4 average from over 300 Amazon customers. Seems as though people really like the product, Facebook issues notwithstanding.

Another colleague, Ian Sherr, feels differently

Why can't you [Facebook] fix all this stuff before trying to sell us a device that, at best, already faces an uphill battle in trying to convince people that putting yet another internet-connected doorway into their homes is a good idea?

(Gut check: Am I the only one who thinks Facebook's Portal is the wrong product at the wrong time? Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, said Portal is "downright creepy" and wanted to ask, "How much pain are you willing to go through to see it succeed?")

Some people will always care more about privacy than others. And that's all fine and good. But I can't imagine anyone thinking the Portal and the Portal Plus were well-timed product releases in light of Facebook's ongoing issues or that we'd all just line up and buy a bunch of these things. Mark Zuckerberg's social network is in the midst of a serious identity crisis. "Hey Portal, flash your screen once if you need help."