The social media giant’s latest bold move is to launch the Facebook Portal. These devices are designed for video chats with motion-sensitive cameras, smart displays, and Alexa built-in.
But this is the company with an extensive history of privacy scandals, including concerns about data collection and facial recognition. Can you really trust Facebook Portals with sensitive information?
What Is Facebook Portal?
The Facebook Portal lets you make video calls via Messenger or WhatsApp. Each unit has a 12MP motion-sensitive camera which follows you around the room with a 140-degree field of view. It also uses Augmented Reality (AR) to integrate animation into chats, reminiscent of Snapchat’s filters, lenses, and stickers.
Because Alexa is built-in, you can search the web (in a limited capacity), play music via Spotify, and control your smart home.
A standard Portal features a 10-inch display, though cheaper alternatives include the Mini (eight-inch display) and TV. The latter integrates with your smart television, meaning chats can be carried over to the biggest screen in your house.
It sounds like a handy device akin to other voice assistant devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home Hub, right? So what’s the problem?
Why Should You Worry About Facebook Portal?
A camera permanently trained on your living room should immediately raise concerns. So, too, should its microphone, which some think can be used to listen in on everything you do.
After all, worries about smart devices spying on you persist. Just look at those reports of targeted advertisements apparently based on discussions had with family and friends.
People are now naturally sceptical of Facebook’s intentions. Admittedly, that doesn’t stop millions from using it every day. Still, you can reduce the amount of information you put online. The main potential issue with Facebook Portal is that you don’t know what’s collected and who can access that data.
We’ll come back to that.
It’s especially concerning as Facebook isn’t known for its transparency. In July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for failing to tell its users about a data leak which led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, however, now admits the firm has a responsibility to look after personal information.
What Safety Features Do Facebook Portals Have?
Facebook says that the Portal was created with “privacy, safety, and security in mind”, so what exactly does that mean? How does the Facebook Portal protect your privacy?
The camera and microphone can be disabled with the touch of a button. A red light demonstrates that they’re inactive. But why should you trust that? After all, even Zuckerberg covers the camera on his laptop with tape—a smart move given how snoopers can spy on you through such devices.
3 things about this photo of Zuck:
Camera covered with tape
Mic jack covered with tape
Email client is Thunderbird pic.twitter.com/vdQlF7RjQt
— Chris Olson (@topherolson) June 21, 2016
With that in mind, second-generation Portals have a physical cover you can slide over the lens. This doesn’t automatically disable the microphone, however, because you may still want to use the voice interface.
You can also activate the screen lock. It’s like your smartphone: it stops others from using the device without inputting a four- to 12-digit passcode.
And as Portals piggyback off Messenger and WhatsApp, calls are encrypted. This means data sent between units (whether Portal to Portal or via another device) is scrambled in transit so is difficult, though not impossible, to intercept.
Perhaps most importantly, the Portal can’t record and save videos or broadcast using Facebook Live. Your video calls aren’t listened to or stored anywhere.
Can Facebook Portal Identify Faces?
You’ve seen facial recognition at work. Tags are suggested when you add photos of family and friends on Facebook. This uses the company’s Deep Face technology to build an artificial map of faces. Naturally, you should be wondering, does Facebook Portal use facial recognition software? Does it know who’s talking?
Fortunately not. The Portal doesn’t recognise your face. The AI is used to track motion, so the camera can pan across a room. It isn’t there for malicious intent. Nonetheless, it can lock onto faces, so the Portal automatically zooms and still keeps you in shot. It’s also used when activating AR.
This AI runs locally, meaning on your actual Portal, not on Facebook’s servers.
Does Facebook Portal’s Microphone Listen All the Time?
As previously mentioned, you can disable the microphone. You have to physically turn it back on again before it’ll listen to voice commands again. If you use the camera shutter to cover the lens, your mic stays on, so it can still react when you say “Hey Portal”.
The Portal activates when it detects you saying that phrase then waits for commands. If activated, a notification appears at the bottom of the screen.
But no system is infallible, so Facebook coyly warns about “false wakes”, i.e. when it incorrectly identifies something you say as “Hey Portal”. These misunderstandings are deleted within 90 days.
What Information Does Facebook Portal Collect?
Read that last sentence again. Because yes, Facebook nonetheless collects some information from you. This primarily relates to voice commands.
Once the unit hears “Hey Portal”, it records and transcribes what it hears. This information is then sent to Facebook’s servers, including background noises. Facebook deletes this—eventually. It can take three years.
To prevent this and “false wakes”, you need to turn your microphone off. It means it won’t respond to “Hey Portal”, however.
So does Facebook Portal store anything related to your video calls? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: yes. Though your actual video contents stay private, technical details are sent to Facebook. The company says this includes “volume level, number of bytes received, or frame resolution”.
Further data is logged on your Portal and only sent to Facebook in the form of crash reports. This can tell the social network how many people were in frame when the Portal stopped working and their distances from the microphones.
This is indicative of more information sent to Facebook. The onus is on performance, so it’ll also collate data about ambient light, system logs, and settings.
That’s what happens to your video calls. What about third-party apps? The Portal has an in-built browser and a limited app store; some apps are pre-loaded too. And yes, these open more questions about privacy. Facebook communicates with third-parties.
Sometimes, this is merely about app usage: frequency, bugs, and length of time you use them. Sometimes, more information is mined. To find out more, you have to check out the independent privacy policies of each app. It takes time, but it’s worth finding out exactly what personal details you’re surrendering.
How Is Collected Information Used?
Facebook assures users that most of the data collected is for performance reasons only. Information develops the AIs, so, for instance, results to “Hey Portal” enquiries are accurate. These are reviewed by actual people, not merely a computer. These Facebook workers are monitored so they comply with privacy and security strictures.
But your voice commands can be shared with third parties. Recordings and transcripts are sent to service providers like Alexa once more to improve the service. Transcripts are shared with apps for accuracy in response to “Hey Portal” enquiries.
An added caveat is in your favor: the pitch of your voice is altered so no one can personally identify you that way.
However, further identifiers are shared, like your Portal’s name, IP address, and zip code.
How Can You Protect Your Information?
“Hey Portal” is only available in English at the time of launch, so if you select another language, voice commands are disabled. This will greatly reduce how useful your device is, though.
Fortunately, there is something you can do to protect your privacy. Thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), you can access and delete your recordings—meaning Facebook won’t store any voice commands.
You can disable storage completely in your Portal Settings, so you can still use “Hey Portal” but it won’t log what you say. The downside is that it won’t be as fast or as accurate as devices which store data, although it’s doubtful you’ll even notice this lag.
System usage is still logged. The company can tell what times you use Portal and how often.
To alter this, you’ll need to sign into Facebook, navigate to your profile, then click on Activity Log. This is a list of every time you’ve signed into Portal or Facebook, plus all your reacts and comments. You can delete accordingly. It may take some time if you’ve never looked before.
There’s nothing you can do about the company sharing device information like IP address, sadly.
Don’t forget that anyone else who uses your Portal can access your recordings. If you’re nervous about this, use a passcode.
Can You Trust Facebook Portal With Your Privacy?
This might surprise you, but… Yes. We’re very nervous about Facebook’s security scandals, but the Portal is designed with your privacy in mind. It’s not perfect, of course. You’ve should be wary of “false wakes”, where information is recorded when the unit thinks you’ve said “Hey Portal”.
Then again, that’s a concern with all voice assistants. The Facebook Portal is as safe as such devices get right now.
But of course, you should always stay vigilant about your privacy. It’s always worth reviewing the data you submit to Facebook.