Facebook is no longer limiting its products and services to software. The company is getting ready to ship their new hardware line Portal and Portal+ as part of the social media giant’s entry into the smart speaker market at the end of November 2018. This new product aims to compete with Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
The Portal voice-controlled system comes with a screen and a camera that tracks your every movement. It can connect with Messenger and alert you when friends are ready to engage in what amounts to a video conference.
Portal is also a speaker for Alexa. You can start a call by saying, “Hey Portal.” Alexa “can deliver the weather forecast and sports scores or help you control smart home devices.”
But Portal’s selling point is the camera used to make video calls. It comes in two sizes: the 10-inch model with 720-pixel screen lists for $199 while the larger 15.6-inch version brings 1080 pixels for $349.
Portal can call any contact on your Messenger list even if there is no Portal device on the receiving end. Up to six people can join a call. “Facebook says the Portal is designed to create the sense that you’re sharing one big room with the people you’re talking to, and considers the chats you have on the device an augmented reality experience,” according to Jake Kastrenakes who is associated with The Verge.
Portal is supposed to be liberating because you don’t need to be a camera operator: all you have to do is talk.
Gone are the days when you remain tethered to a phone device, even by holding a cell phone to your ear. There is nothing to hold, aim, or direct. After a call begins, the camera identifies people in the room and adjusts the image to keep everyone in view. If there is only one caller, the camera zooms in for a facial close-up.
Portal can sync music from Pandora and Spotify with other users. It can play videos through Facebook Watch and make a slideshow from photos in any Facebook album you select. It will send you Facebook birthday notifications. The Story Time feature allows users to add music, animation, and AR (Augmented Reality) to stories as you read them to your kids. (Story Time titles at launch include the “Three Little Pigs,” “Five Little Monkeys,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Professor Right,” and “Trouble Bubble.”)
Billed as a feature and not a bug, without actually moving, the fixed Portal camera tracks movement and follows people within its range, keeping them in frame. It automatically widens up to a 140-degree field of view to make room for extra callers. The microphone boosts the voice of the person speaking while reducing background noise. (This is a characteristic of modern hearing aids.)
Despite all these bells and whistles, many consumers do not have warm, fuzzy feelings about Facebook after the privacy scandals which have rocked the company this year. In early October, the news exploded that Facebook had admitted that a massive data breach had affected about 50 million user accounts.
This spring, Facebook became embroiled in the Cambridge Analytics scandal, where third-party vendors basically stole user data (without anyone at Facebook knowing about it, if you can believe that) for their own profits.
Finally, Facebook has been using their “community standards” to suppress user posts that are “hate speech” or politically conservative. Many people know someone who has spent time cooling off in Facebook Jail.
So why would anyone in their right mind pay good money for a sophisticated piece of spyware and voluntarily hook it up in their own home or office? This is the question on everyone’s minds, apparently – especially folks who read George Orwell’s classic book 1984. Check out this quote from that futuristic novel:
“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.”
Facebook claims there is nothing to worry about and demonstrates their trustworthiness by including a tiny lens cover that blinds the camera and (allegedly) switches off the microphones.
People familiar with Orwellian nightmare scenarios tweeted their cynical sarcasm in response to the new in-home surveillance system:
- “No thanks, big brother.” – ColdClaw22 (Oct. 8)
- “From the company that sold your phone number to advertisers.” – Torch (Oct. 8)
- “Anyone still on Facebook, you deserve this.” – Crow (Oct. 8)
One very imaginative critic tweeted a future picture of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issuing a public apology for creating spyware capable of invading the privacy of millions of users:
“Zuck’s congressional testimony in 2021: ‘Did we make a few mistakes? Yes, we did. Did we spy on a few million people? I’d like to say no. But we made some mistakes and I accept full responsibility.'” – Jeremy Collins (Oct. 8)
Another problem with Portal is that voice activation is just about the only thing it offers that your phone, tablet, or laptop isn’t already doing. So why pay hundreds of dollars for a single device that takes up room and only does one thing well: make video calls?
The biggest obstacles to Portal sales comes from its maker: Facebook. This company has lost so much public trust that articles like this write themselves. As one average consumer told USA Today:
“Why would I let Facebook have an internet-connected camera in my home?”
Facebook promises that Portal:
- Does not “listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you are calling.”
- Video calls are encrypted.
- Does not use its AI (artificial intelligence) for the Smart Camera and Smart Sound features inside the hardware on Facebook’s servers (everything stays local on your system).
- Cannot record video.
- Does not enable the AI camera with facial recognition to identify callers.
Rafa Camargo, Facebook’s VP in charge of hardware claims that privacy has been built into “every layer” of Portal. The hardware group was formed in 2016 as “Building 8.” And guess who was involved in Building 8? According to CNN, none other than the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, home of many a covert black operation:
“The [Building 8] team was previously led by former DARPA and Google executive Regina Dugan. It worked on futuristic technology that would let you type words directly from your brain and ‘hear’ through your skin, according to a talk at last year’s F8 developer conference. Dugan resigned from Facebook after 18 months.”
On October 9, a Facebook representative assured everyone that call histories won’t be logged:
“Portal calls are powered by Messenger – as such we collect the same info we as we do on other Messenger-enabled devices. This includes information about the quality of the call or to inform your call history, for example.”
That may as may be, but because Facebook cares so much about our safety, their corporate policy will turn their product into spyware when law enforcement authorities make demands:
“We may access, preserve and share information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”
Anyone naive enough to trust Facebook – or smart technology – will happily plunk down the money, take home a brand new Portal, and kiss their privacy goodbye forever. Don’t say you weren’t warned.