Sound Like Facebook's Video Phone Isn't That Secure, After All

Maybe don't press 'BUY' quite yet

By Kirk Miller

 
Portal
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08 October 2018

UPDATE 10/17/18: In a shock to no one, Facebook now says it could use data collected from Portal to target you with ads on other Facebook-owned properties, according to a report on Recode, although “don't intend to use it” that way.


Hey, remember all those privacy concerns you had about Alexa-enabled devices? And Facebook? If you married those concerns together, you’d get Portal.

New from Facebook, Portal and the larger Portal+ look like smart speakers with video displays; at first glance, they might be mistaken for Amazon’s Echo Show.

Portal

However, these hands-free devices — which represent the tech giant's first branded, consumer-facing hardware products — are really more about video chat. The idea is you’ll use Portal’s microphones and camera to make Facebook-enabled video calls. Callers always stay in frame, as the device’s smart camera (with an 8x zoom) constantly adjusts to your motion.

To make a call, you simply begin with, “Hey Portal.” From there, you can contact anybody who has Facebook’s Messenger app — so pretty much everyone. Group calls are also available up to six people.

Now, if you believe Facebook, these are secure devices: you can disable the 12MP camera and microphone with one tap, and/or use the built-in camera cover to block the lens (IMHO, something all computers and smart devices should come with). The company also claims they don’t “listen to, view or keep contents of your Portal video calls.” As well, the smart camera’s AI runs locally, not on Facebook servers, and the camera doesn’t use facial recognition. [For an update on what they can use your data for, see the first paragraph above.]

Some other selling points: There are some augmented-reality features and animated skins available for an interactive stories mode, which seems fun if you’re talking to your kids from far away. You can also listen to music long distance with friends with (as they claim) zero lag, which is ... a feature, I guess. And the device offers the usual smart speaker capabilities (smart home control, Alexa skills) and big-name music partners (Spotify, Pandora, etc.), along with some nascent video capabilities (Facebook Watch, Food Network, etc.).

Overall, your use for this device depends on a lot of variables. Do you trust Facebook? Do you trust Alexa-enabled devices? Is marrying a smart speaker with a video capability you already possess with your laptop, desktop or tablet/phone really that useful? And shouldn’t these work with some more popular video options, like YouTube or Netflix?

Preorders for Portal range from $199-$349, with delivery scheduled for November 12.

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