Facebook is offering new video-calling devices powered by artificial intelligence. Judging by reviews, privacy concerns are going to make them a tough sell.
In its basic version, the Facebook Portal sells for $199, while the bigger Portal+ is priced at $349. Facebook started shipping the products on Nov. 8, after announcing them last month.
The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern distrusted the Portal so much that she refused to even bring it into her home. “I just couldn’t bring myself to set up Facebook’s camera-embedded screen in the privacy of my family’s home,” she wrote (paywall).
Stern’s misgivings were shared by many journalists, largely because of the Portal’s advanced camera technology and Facebook’s history of privacy transgressions. (The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of up to 87 million users may have been improperly shared, is just one example.)
In a blog post, Facebook described the Portal as a way to connect with loved ones and “feel like you’re in the same room.” But while the voice-control features, motion-tracking technology, and 12-megapixel camera might seem like desirable features on a smart home gadget, Facebook’s reputation precedes it.
Ian Sherr wrote for CNET: “Did you think we all missed that this new Portal device isn’t just some magical video chat gadget, but also a way to gather even more information about us so you can send yet even more targeted advertising our way?”
Sherr’s misgivings are not unfounded. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed with Recode last month that data about who you call and which apps you use on Portal can in fact be used for targeted ads.
But Facebook insists that it’s not listening or watching the whole time. The blog post announcing the product emphasizes that the microphone and camera can be disabled with a single tap, calls are encrypted and never recorded, voice command history can be deleted, and the camera does not use facial recognition.
Just this week, Andrew Bosworth, vice president of consumer hardware at Facebook, told Bloomberg (paywall) that the Portal devices don’t even have recording capabilities (although he said they might develop that functionality over time). Bosworth also specified that Portal and Portal+ will gather the same information that Facebook Messenger does, like how frequently you speak to certain people, and that activity “might help advertisers in some way.”
Bosworth added, however, that even if “this was the most successful hardware product in history,” it wouldn’t be significant compared to the 1 billion users already using Messenger. “This isn’t a data gathering operation,” he said. (Facebook did not immediately respond to Quartz’s requests for further comment.)
But for many reviewers, that’s not enough.
MarketWatch called the Portal a “foolhardy attempt” to distract from Facebook’s past privacy transgressions, describing it “the worst tech device of the year.”
People took to Twitter to express similar sentiments and doubts.
Beyond privacy concerns, some reviewers highlighted that the devices don’t serve any real function apart from providing a good video call, which many other brands and devices have already achieved. The Verge pointed out that the Portal doesn’t support major streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, has no web browser for rudimentary internet functions, and doesn’t even allow users to browse their own Facebook news feeds. Reviewer Dan Seifart said his feelings for it fell “somewhere between hesitation and revulsion.”
That’s not to say that no one has highlighted positive aspects of the Portal. Having removed the context of Facebook’s poor privacy record, one reviewer noted that his mother enjoyed the product, especially the fun face filters, and that it is indeed a good way to connect with loved ones. Another said that when it comes to hardware design, the Portal devices are sleek, with high-quality displays.
Such comments won’t likely drown out the barrage of brutal assessments that the product has gained so far, or the ever-present privacy concerns. Two tech reporters for the New York Times said in their review (paywall) how much they liked the Portal, but security concerns would still get in the way.
“Of course, I can see people objecting—wait, not only are you putting a Facebook-connected machine in your house, but its camera will also follow you around the room, like some kind of digital Eye of Sauron?!” Farhad Manjoo said.
Mike Isaac, Manjoo’s fellow author, said that despite the Portal’s good qualities, “there was no shaking the feeling that I was being watched.”