Facebook picked a terrible time to try to sell us a smart camera

Chris Davies - Oct 8, 2018, 10:22 am CDT
Facebook picked a terrible time to try to sell us a smart camera

Facebook wants to put an internet-connected smart camera into your home, that knows where you are in the room, and has access to your friends list, and no this isn’t a Black Mirror episode. The new Facebook Portal and Portal+ video calling devices picked an awkward time to launch today, given recent disclosures by the social network about lapses in account security. That said, you could well argue that there really isn’t a good time for Facebook to try to put cameras in your kitchen or living room.

Trust what I say, not what I do

Launching Portal+ and Portal now is pretty brazen. Facebook is hardly the poster-child for privacy right now, just a couple of weeks out from disclosing a huge hack that put the private information of 50 million users at risk, and prompted the site to lock down 90 million accounts. Any rational company might be expected to lay low in the aftermath of that, not make a pitch to put a connected video camera in your home.

Then again, this isn’t Facebook’s first time on this particular rodeo, and nor – if the rumors are to be believed – is it the Portal team’s. The video calling devices were actually intended to launch earlier in the year, so insiders claim, but opted to delay that because of the Cambridge Analytica furore around the 2016 US Presidential election.

Since then, we’ve seen governments call for greater oversight around how Facebook handles personal data, and a growing number of people questioning whether relying on the social network for third-party account access is a misguided approach to security. With all that a constant simmering in the background, maybe there never was going to be a “perfect” time to launch Portal. All Facebook can do is say the right things and hope they’re convincing.

In this case, those right words are a commitment to minimizing how much of what you do with Portal and Portal+ ends up on Facebook’s servers. Like Alexa and the Google Assistant, voice processing for hands-free commands is handled in the cloud. However, all the clever person tracking in the Smart Camera is done locally, on-device, and Facebook is using 2D pose recognition – where it identifies arms, legs, and torsos, and uses that to figure out where a person might be and thus where there face is likely to be positioned in the frame – rather than facial recognition.

Video calls are encrypted, Facebook points out, and so it wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop on their content even if it wanted to. Press the camera mute button, and both it and the quad microphone array are “physically disconnected” according to Rafa Camargo, Vice President of Portal. There’s no way to re-enable them in software – or for a nefarious app to secretly turn them on if you switched them off – you need to walk back over and press the button again. If you want to leave the microphones listening, but block the camera, Facebook is including a little rubber privacy shield that clips over the top.

Act first, apologize later

It’s a pretty comprehensive set of features to assuage the paranoid, but I can still see it being insufficient. On the one hand, the explanations involved in laying all that out are exponentially more complex than I suspect most potential customers for Portal would be ready to listen to, or in a position to understand the nuances of. The intricacies of 2D pose recognition pale in comparison to “Facebook is watching you with an internet-connected camera” concerns.

At the same time, Facebook’s past behavior is its own worst enemy today. The site has had encryption, and advanced security features like two-factor authentication, for a long time now. That hasn’t stopped it from quietly giving access to information in your profile to advertisers and other services who your friends have engaged with, from using the phone number you set up two-factor authentication with to deliver targeted adverts, and from generally pushing to use as much data as it can get away with for marketing purposes.

In short, it’s the difficulty in balancing a business model based on selling increasingly targeted access to individuals with the privacy demands of users who have trusted Facebook with a whole lot of information. Deserved or otherwise, the social network currently has the reputation of doing whatever it can to promote the former, and then subsequently apologizing if it’s criticized around the latter. Faced with that, it’s hardly a shock if people are instantly skeptical about Portal’s intentions.

Beyond privacy, an odd feature mix

Portal’s problems don’t stop at privacy, mind. At a time when smart displays are trying to do more and more, Facebook’s narrow focus on video calling could leave many potential buyers cold.

For a device that puts communication at its core, the absence of support for Messenger text, photo, or video messages is odd. Portal only does live video calls. Messenger shouldn’t feel too slighted, though; Facebook-owned WhatsApp doesn’t even get its video calling integrated, never mind IMs.

Meanwhile, despite all that screen to play with, there’s a shortage of features that actually take advantage of it. You get Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Pandora for music playback, and the ability to stream audio to Portal over Bluetooth, but otherwise the only apps are Facebook Watch, Food Network, and Newsy. No YouTube, no Amazon Prime Video – despite the Alexa integration – and not even a basic web browser.

Double the trust issues

In short, for Portal or Portal+ to really make sense to you, you’ll need to trust Facebook in two ways. First, there’s the question of privacy and data security. Second, there’s the promise – but no public roadmap – of new apps and features down the line.

Portal’s Smart Camera system of person-tracking has real potential, and it works surprisingly smoothly. There’s a whole lot Facebook could do with it, the high-resolution camera, and Portal’s undeniably premium-feeling hardware. Being able to use Portal to record video messages or YouTube vlogs could be a game-changer. Problem is, you can’t do that now, and while the Portal team says it’s aware of the possibilities it’s also not committing to actually delivering them.

There are a few things working in Portal’s favor. The entry-level model, at $199, undercuts Amazon’s Echo Show 2nd Gen and Lenovo’s Google-powered Smart Display. Video calling works with the Messenger app so, even if your friends don’t have a Portal of their own, you’ll still be able to chat with them. And with Alexa onboard, the idea of a smart display that does double-duty with two services – each with strong brand recognition – could give Portal an edge on store shelves.

All the same, it’s tough not to be skeptical. I’m a Facebook user, and a Messenger user, but I don’t make many video calls and so Portal’s tight focus means I fall outside of the target audience. That’s despite my being a smart home early-adopter, and a fan of smart displays in general. Compounding that, Facebook’s ongoing data privacy saga has left me wary of doing anything that increases my exposure on the service.

I doubt I’m alone in that, and it leaves Portal and Portal+ with an uphill challenge. Being skeptical of Facebook’s intentions simply isn’t the paranoia it was once seen as: it’s actually a fairly reasonable stance for self-protection, based on the social network’s track record in recent years. The Portal team may be saying all the right things about privacy and security, but little in Facebook’s actions of late do anything but undermine those promises.

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