Facebook admits its new $200 ‘Portal’ device that allows family and friends to tune in to each other’s homes does listen into parts of your conversations.
Last month Facebook unveiled two new video communications devices, the $199 Portal and the $349 Portal+.
The devices, which ship this month in the US, are meant to help family and friends stay in touch.
However, they are equipped with an AI-infused wide-angle camera that can follow users around the room and adjust the view accordingly – a feature that’s already attracted the scrutiny of privacy advocates.
Scroll down for video
Facebook has issued a statement today claiming it does not listen to, view or keep the contents of your portal (pictured) video calls or use them to target its advertising
WHAT IS FACEBOOK PORTAL?
Facebook announced two video chat devices, the Portal and Portal+.
Portal and Portal+ are equipped with Amazon’s Alexa, so they respond to voice commands.
Facebook Messenger powers the devices’ video calling features.
Here’s what they can do:
- Make and receive video calls with Messenger users and people who don’t have Messenger.
- Order groceries using Alexa.
- Play music on Spotify or Pandora using Alexa.
- Scroll through your favorite Facebook photos.
- See who’s online on Facebook Messenger.
- Receive updates on Facebook friends’ birthdays.
- View videos on Facebook Watch and other services.
Facebook was said to be prepping a Portal chat device – which is currently not available in the UK – as far back as a year ago.
Reportedly it put the release on hold after the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfolded.
Now, the launch timing is likely to be viewed as just as puzzling, given that Facebook disclosed its largest-ever data breach just a few weeks earlier.
However, Facebook says the Smart Camera and Smart Sound uses AI technology that runs locally on Portal and is not on the Facebook servers.
This means Portal’s camera does not identify who users are, the firm assured users.
The portals – which are Facebook’s first foray into hardware – are also encrypted so calls are secure, the firm said in the statement.
‘When you use Portal, we process the same kinds of information as when you use Facebook products on your other devices’, a spokesperson wrote in a blog post.
‘Some of this information, including the fact that you logged into your account or how often you use a feature or app, may be used to inform the ads you see across Facebook.
‘While we don’t listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls, or use this information to target ads, we do process some device usage information to understand how Portal is being used and to improve the product’, the firm said.
Portal+ is the larger of the two devices, featuring a 15.6-inch, 1080p swiveling screen with hi-fi audio. Meanwhile, Portal includes a 10-inch, 720p screen.
Users can switch between portrait and landscape mode on the Portal+ by swiveling the screen.
Both feature 12 megapixel cameras, as well as two front and rear microphones.
The devices use Facebook Messenger to make and receive calls.
Portal uses several features from Facebook Messenger, such as augmented reality Masks like bunny ears or a cat on your head, which can be overlaid onto a user’s face during a video call
They’re also integrated with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, which powers a wide range of apps, like Spotify and Pandora, along with standard commands like checking the weather, ordering groceries and more, just by saying ‘Hey, Alexa.’
Confusingly, however, users can also say ‘Hey, Portal,’ to make a call.
The devices are equipped with a Bluetooth speaker, as well as a voice-activated speaker.
They can both pair with other Bluetooth speakers in the household to provide more dynamic sound.
Portal can also be used to play videos from places like Facebook Watch and the Food Network, as well as show reminders about birthdays on Facebook.
The firm says there are no Facebook adverts on Portal.
‘However, you may see ads from some third-party apps on Portal (e.g., music partners) in the same way you’ll see ads from these services on other devices’, a spokesperson said.
From the homescreen, Portal will suggest Messenger contacts you might want to call by tapping on their icon, but users can call anyone by saying ‘Hey, Portal.’
Up to seven Portal users can take part in group chats.
Both Portal and Portal+ are equipped with 12 megapixel cameras that adjust based on whoever is entering the frame. They zoom out or in whenever someone moves around the room
The devices are part smart photo frame, part video chat device and are similar to smart display devices rolled out by Google or Amazon, such as the Echo Show.
Facebook designed them to be used from a distance of 5ft to 10ft, which is farther away than a typical webcam.
Using AI, the 140-degree 12 megapixel camera can adjust to whoever is being captured based on how they move around the room.
A feature called SmartCamera mode automatically reframes the image based on people who enter and leave the shot. When users move around the room, the camera will zoom out to make sure it captures both in the frame.
In Spotlight mode, Users can cap on a person in the frame and the camera will automatically zoom in on their face.
‘Thanks to AI technology, Portal makes video calling easier and more like hanging out, while a widescreen display lets you enjoy every moment together,’ Facebook explained in a blog post.
‘When you can’t be there, Portal and Portal+ let you feel there.’
Portal uses several features from Facebook Messenger, such as augmented reality Masks that overlay bunny ears on your face or a cat on your head during a video call.
There’s also a Storytime feature that lets parents read through popular children’s books on screen, including the option to put AR Masks on their face, along with interactive animations that appear on the display.
Addressing what’s quite possibly the elephant in the room, Facebook paid attention to privacy and security in rolling out the device.
Friends or family can’t ‘drop in’ to your home whenever they want, such as the Echo Show’s eponymous feature; instead, video chats have to be accepted before the camera turns on.
Facebook gives users the option to completely disable the camera and microphone capabilities on both devices.
Users can also set a four to 12-digit passcode on their device to keep the screen locked.
FACEBOOK’S PRIVACY DISASTERS
Facebook in late September disclosed that it had been hit by its worst ever data breach, affecting 50 million users – including those of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Attackers exploited the site’s ‘View As’ feature, which lets people see what their profiles look like to other users.
The unknown attackers took advantage of a feature in the code called ‘Access Tokens,’ to take over people’s accounts, potentially giving hackers access to private messages, photos and posts – although Facebook said there was no evidence that had been done.
The hackers also tried to harvest people’s private information, including name, sex and hometown, from Facebook’s systems.
Facebook said it doesn’t yet know if information from the affected accounts has been misused or accessed, and is working with the FBI to conduct further investigations.
However, Mark Zuckerberg assured users that passwords and credit card information was not accessed.
Facebook says it has found no evidence ‘so far’ that hackers broke into third-party apps after a data breach exposed 50 million users (stock image)
As a result of the breach, the firm logged roughly 90 million people out of their accounts earlier today as a security measure.
Facebook made headlines earlier this year after the data of 87 million users was improperly accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy.
The disclosure has prompted government inquiries into the company’s privacy practices across the world, and fueled a ‘#deleteFacebook’ movement among consumers.
Communications firm Cambridge Analytica had offices in London, New York, Washington, as well as Brazil and Malaysia.
The company boasts it can ‘find your voters and move them to action’ through data-driven campaigns and a team that includes data scientists and behavioural psychologists.
‘Within the United States alone, we have played a pivotal role in winning presidential races as well as congressional and state elections,’ with data on more than 230 million American voters, Cambridge Analytica claims on its website.
The company profited from a feature that meant apps could ask for permission to access your own data as well as the data of all your Facebook friends.
The data firm suspended its chief executive, Alexander Nix (pictured), after recordings emerged of him making a series of controversial claims, including boasts that Cambridge Analytica had a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump
This meant the company was able to mine the information of 87 million Facebook users even though just 270,000 people gave them permission to do so.
This was designed to help them create software that can predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.
The data firm suspended its chief executive, Alexander Nix, after recordings emerged of him making a series of controversial claims, including boasts that Cambridge Analytica had a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump.
This information is said to have been used to help the Brexit campaign in the UK.
It has also suffered several previous issues.
2013, Facebook disclosed a software flaw that exposed 6 million users’ phone numbers and email addresses to unauthorized viewers for a year, while a technical glitch in 2008 revealed confidential birth-dates on 80 million Facebook users’ profiles.