Last week we were very skeptical about Facebook’s new bit of hardware, the Portal tracking camera and video calling system — mostly because Facebook hasn’t got the best track record of keeping user data safe. And we were pretty sure that the company plans to use the Portal to harvest even more data about its users to keep the gigantic advertising beast fed. Well… guess what?
Facebook last week said said that they wouldn’t “…listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls” but it turns out they left something out of that sentence. They might not monitor the content of your calls, but they will certainly peek at everything else related to it. Website Recode got in touch with Facebook regarding what information the social network plans to collect using the Portal and it’s not as… minimal as it was first made out to be.
A Facebook spokesperson told Recode in an email that “Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads”.
Which means that, like with most Facebook-owned platforms (looking at you, Insta and WhatsApp), everything that you do on the Portal will somehow influence the ads you’ll see across the board. Facebook has said that they won’t use that data. But they might. They definitely have the capacity to and the Portal will collect that data anyway. Which begs the question:
Why are we paying for the Portal?
Facebook’s Portal camera and speaker system carries a not-insubstantial price tag. Pricing starts at around R3,000 for the standard Portal, and users will pay about R5,000 for the Portal+. However, it looks like that’s not the only way that Facebook could make money from Portal users. Portal owners are essentially buying a data-harvesting device that may let Facebook gather further information on its users. Quite legally, we’re sure, but the fact remains that you’ll be handing over more than just cash on this one.
The reason users put up with Facebook’s data collection practices is because you don’t pay Facebook for access to their platform. Ditto Insta and WhatsApp — those are both free. Or “free”. All you need to do is agree to hand over your data. When you’re purchasing hardware, you could reasonably expect that Facebook’s not going to be double-dipping, charging you first for the device itself and then using the information you generate to make more money for the company. At that point we really should get a discount, at least.
But that’s just what the Portal is capable of doing and Facebook may claim that “…we don’t intend to use it” but since they’ve followed that up with “Potentially, it could be used”, we’re not impressed with the idea of letting a Portal into our homes. And that doesn’t even touch on what will happen if Facebook decides to bring its camera and microphones into play, using what it detects in and around a home to further inform its data-harvesting practices.
It just takes a change to the terms and conditions during a software update (yeah, we know you don’t read it). The cameras and mics will already be in place — if Facebook decides to just start listening one day, there’s not a massive amount we could do about it — even if there is a physical cutoff for the recording hardware. If you’re already used to having a Portal in your home, you’ll probably just shrug if Facebook starts watching your home for further tips for advertisers. After all, that’s just what they do — because we let them.