What do we do about Facebook Portal’s privacy problem?

By Adam Tinworth

The delightful thing about NEXT18 was disappearing into a huddle of people genuinely trying to make a difference to the digital world. But sometimes an experience like that is matched by the cold shock of reality, as you encounter again how little the rest of the digital world has changed - yet.

Take, for example, Facebook Portal. Now, here was a real test for the company. After a year when it was deeply bruised by its own inability to control all the data it was harvesting it, could it find a way to sell us a product that quite literally watches and listens to us in a way that didn’t worry us about privacy?

At first, things seemed promising. The product was rumoured to have been set for launch back in the early part of the year - the fact that one of the publicity pictures is dated March suggests that might be true - but they shelved it while the privacy problems died down.

A press image of portal from March

And there are some indications they’ve been thinking about it. It has a physical shutter you can drop over the camera lens, for example.

But, as Benedict Evans put it in his newsletter:

Either way, Facebook seems to have decided that the news cycle wasn't going to shift any time soon, so it needs to press on regardless.

Portal's Privacy Problem

And many of the articles that covered its launch promised that it wasn’t a data collection device. Pretty quickly, the story changed:

Last Monday, we wrote: “No data collected through Portal — even call log data or app usage data, like the fact that you listened to Spotify — will be used to target users with ads on Facebook.”

We wrote that because that’s what we were told by Facebook executives.

But Facebook has since reached out to change its answer: Portal doesn’t have ads, but data about who you call and data about which apps you use on Portal can be used to target you with ads on other Facebook-owned properties.

That’s… staggering. First of all, Facebook executives told reporters something that was simply untrue. On top of that, they’d tried to conceal the fact that you’re paying for a device that is being sued to harvest data about you. If you think that Facebook is listening to you via your phone, why on earth would you put one of those things in your home, when its entire purpose from the company’s point of view is to monitor you, so they can target advertising more effectively?

As blogger Jon Gruber put it:

If you trust Facebook with a camera and microphone in your house, I’d love to have you at my table in a poker game.

How do we respond to Portal?

As many of the speakers at NEXT18, from Andrew Keen onwards, there are solutions to the digital fix we’ve found ourselves in at company, consumer and political levels.

A spy in your kitchen

The launch of Portal - and the revelations of the underlying problems with it 10 days later - suggest that there’s very little will within Facebook to change the way they operate, even if they are aware that there’s a reputation problem. No wonder that there are moves afoot to remove Zuckerberg as chairman, even if those efforts are unlikely to succeed because of the founder’s controlling share structure.

So, the next question is: will the public pay to have a device like this in their homes? There is some historical evidence that they won’t - Facebook’s phone was an abject failure, and Facebook’s reputation is much worse now. And a lot of the social media response is negative:

But if they do sell - if people are uncaring or unaware enough of the privacy issues - then our last line of defence needs to come into play. As we increasingly fill our homes with connected microphones and cameras, we need to start having a conversation about the implications of that - and that should include a conversation about how to legislate for the protection of our homes.

Isn’t it interesting how these devices are targeted at home use? No competent security team for a corporation would approve wholesale use of them. The security risks are just too great. Perhaps we need to get as skeptical at home.