The Big Problem With Facebook’s Portal Devices Has Nothing to Do With How Great They Are

By Victoria Song on at

Are you ready to let Facebook put a connected camera into your home?

The embattled social network is in the middle of a years-long PR clusterfuck owing to a series of privacy screwups, an on-going moderation catastrophe, and most recently, sleazy political tactics. That said, it’s still a communication method used by billions, and it’s probably running in the background on your phone or laptop right now. So maybe a more precise question is: Would you invite even more of Facebook’s mess into your home if it was offering a cool gadget to help you better keep in touch with family and friends? That’s the primary selling point of its new Portal devices. The in-home smart displays are basically sophisticated video chat boxes (with scary microphones and cameras!), and they’ve certainly got some fancy tricks that might lead even a rational, self-aware human to consider buying into Facebook’s bullshit, and in the process, potentially trading in privacy for convenience.

Lead

Facebook Portal and Portal+

WHAT IS IT?: Facebook's version of the Echo Show
PRICE: $199 (£156) for the Portal; $349 (£274) for the Portal+; both available in the US only
LIKE: Solid hardware. Good call quality. AR effects are fun.
DON'T LIKE: Facebook's privacy track record.

Video chat isn’t new. We’ve all suffered through grainy Skype calls, garbage Google Hangouts, and choppy FaceTimes. But last year we started seeing videos move to smart home hardware with the Amazon Echo Show. It’s only a matter of time before we’re inundated with smart displays vying for our attention. But the main difference is that while you can make calls with the Echo Show, it’s the raison d’etre for Facebook’s Portal Devices. (Neither are available in the UK yet, but it's only a matter of time.)

The regular Portal resembles both the Echo Show and Google Home Hub, with an added speaker grille at the bottom. The Portal+ sort of looks like a tower with a camera up top and rotatable iPad glued onto it. Of the two, the Portal is the more affordable option at $199 (£156) and has a 10.1-inch 720p screen, as well a 12-MP camera with a 140-degree field of view. The Portal+ costs $249 (£274), and is considerably bigger with a 15.6-inch 1080p display. It’s got the same camera, but given its larger size, it has room for more powerful speakers than the regular Portal.

Both Portals look appropriately sleek for a device meant to be on display in your home, though the Portal+ takes up an obnoxious amount of space. It’s 17.7-inches-tall, and there’s just no way it won’t dominate a room. You can’t really stick it on a bookshelf, nightstand, or worktop without displacing something a bit more important. Plus, in landscape mode, it takes up just about as much space as a 15-inch laptop on a stand. The Portal is way more reasonable and fits well in a kitchen or atop a living room console.

As for actually calling people, I was surprised by the Portal’s video and audio quality. Facebook gave us both devices, and calling Portal-to-Portal+ was smooth. The video wasn’t choppy, picture quality was crisp, and lag was minimal. I never had to strain to hear the person I was calling, and there wasn’t any audio garbling. In general, picture quality is a smidge grainier on the regular Portal compared to the Portal+, but both are better and more stable than FaceTime on your phone. You can also call any friend or family member who has Facebook Messenger, though I experienced issues with video cutting out with Portal-to-phone calls. Volume on both devices is loud enough to fill up a room. I played the entirety of Joji’s Ballad 1 in my kitchen, and it sounded plenty clear even at top volume.

The Portal + sort of looks like a giant rotatable iPad was glued onto it. (GIF: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo)

But the thing that really sets Facebook’s Portal devices apart is the smart camera. The best way I can describe it is like seeing yourself through Mona Lisa’s eyes. You can sort of see it in action in Facebook’s Portal commercials. It follows you wherever you go, so you’re never really out of frame. That’s amazing when you consider how half of every FaceTime session with tech-addled relatives is spent explaining why phone cameras shouldn’t be aimed at the chin. On the flip side, it’s also creepy watching a camera follow and zoom in on you in real time. Facebook told me this was so you can hang out with multiple people at a time without worrying who is or isn’t in frame, or video chat while doing other things like painting or cooking. Still, it’s a strange mix of very cool and deeply unnerving to see it happen.

But aside from video calling, there’s just not much else the Portal can do. Its app offering is thin—you get Facebook Watch, iHeartRadio, Food Network, Newsy, Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube. No Netflix or other video entertainment that would make use of the displays. No browser to surf the web. When you’re not on calls, you can use the Portal’s Superframe feature. This turns the Portal into a sort of digital picture frame using photos you’ve uploaded onto the social network. Amazon Alexa is built in, and while I successfully turned off my lights with it, it’s not a compelling reason to buy the Portal when an Echo Dot will do the same for £50.

OK, this is a cat call I don’t mind. (Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo)

Because you can’t really do anything else, Facebook has tacked on as many special features to video calls as it can. Gizmodo's Alex Cranz and I got real dorky with Snapchat-esque AR effects ranging from cats and talking dogs, to dancing strawberries and werewolf masks. If you want to listen to Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” while complaining about exes with a friend, you can also share songs mid-call via Spotify—provided you both have Portals and premium accounts. There’s also a Story Time mode. Once I enter this mode, I can tell the person I’m calling a bedtime story. On my screen, I’ll see a script for a reimagined children’s classic, like the Itsy Bitsy Spider or The Three Little Pigs. The person I’m calling will see me interacting with the story with animated characters and AR effects. I tried this with my partner, and when it was over, he said I was lucky he didn’t dump me on the spot.

Which brings me to one of the major issues I have with Facebook Portal: I am simultaneously 25 years too old and 40 years too young for this device. It feels like the prime audience for this gadget is really grandparents who live far away, and parents who travel a lot. And face it, if you don’t have kids, you’re less likely to shell out $200-$350 to video chat when your phone is already in your pocket.

But even for the target audience, there’s a lot of hurdles to using the Portal. First off, you need a Facebook account to use Portal at all. And while a good number of tech-savvy parents and grandparents are now on the platform, there are a tonne who aren’t. My mum, for instance, is paranoid about data privacy and avoids all social media—FaceTime is her video-calling app of choice because it doesn’t really require her to do much. As a potential workaround, you could give a tech-challenged parent your account credentials. I logged into both Portals and tested calling myself, so it does work. But then if you’re not careful, you could accidentally give grandma access to those Facebook photos where you got way too drunk thanks to the Superframe feature.

It’s a little weird seeing my photo feed on display. (Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo)

Children’s privacy is another issue. You can enable a passcode to lock the Portal, but it’s really not hard for kids to figure that stuff out. It’s intended for young kids to use their parents’ accounts when talking to grandparents, and when I asked, Facebook emphasised you have to be at least 13 to have an individual account. These would appear to be reasonable safeguards, if Facebook’s track record with data this past year wasn’t so abysmal.

And Facebook knows that. It’s clear from the second you unbox and set up the Portals that the company hoped to address its privacy concerns as comprehensively as possible. Each device comes with a plastic camera cover, and in a demo, Facebook made sure to show me that you can turn the camera and microphone off by pressing the Mute button at the top of each device. (Confusingly, the light turns red when you mute the camera and mic. It led some coworkers and friends to think the camera was active.) You can toggle whether Facebook users can see your availability, as well as set up a Home and Away mode using your phone’s GPS so people only see you’re available when you’re home.

When you log in for the first time, you have to authenticate yourself by entering a special code from your phone or desktop. You have to authenticate yourself a lot, including when setting up third-party apps or any time you change settings. It was kind of annoying but the frequency really makes you think just how aware Facebook is of its image. So much so that the company even has two policy sites dedicated to Portal: one for privacy and security, and one for what they do with your data.

Facebook includes a camera cover. ‘Cause they know we’re all paranoid. (Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo)

How secure is the Portal? Calls are encrypted, but that’s about as much as can be said about that. When I asked Facebook for more details of how the calls are encrypted, I expected more clarification about how it manages encryption keys, what protocols it uses, and whether calls are encrypted end-to-end. Instead, I was told by a spokesperson that “calls on Portal are encrypted.” Facebook says it “[does] not listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls…[and] nothing you say on a Portal video call is accessed by Facebook or used for advertising.” Also, the camera’s face recognition AI runs locally on the device, not on Facebook’s servers.

Cool, except for the niggling fact that won’t isn’t the same as can’t. Also, even if calls are encrypted, and even if you can mute the camera/microphone, that doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t collecting data. It is. Specifically, the company’s privacy policy page lists things like volume levels, bytes received, frame resolution, and crash reports, which sure, makes sense. But the data policy page also says “ambient noise and background conversations” might get sent to Facebook if you opt to use the “Hey Portal” voice command. You can delete the Portal voice history manually from your activity log, but that requires a level of vigilance most people won’t keep up with. It also extremely does not help that Facebook botched Portal privacy questions from Recode and then said it was a “misunderstanding.”

By contrast, reading Alexa and Google Homes’s data policy pages feels less creepy. They’re more matter-of-fact and way more in-depth about how my data is used.

Even if I can flick the camera and mic off, it still feels like I’m being watched. (Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo)

Facebook’s stance on whether the Portal data can be used for advertising is also mixed. On the one hand, it says your calls are private and no information is gleaned from them to be used for targeted ads. On the other, it says Portal is integrated into Facebook Messenger, and as a result, some data—like the features you use and how long you use an app—might be used to “inform the ads you see across Facebook.”

This just highlights how despite the good hardware and call quality, using the Facebook Portal is always accompanied by a pervasive sense of unease. I feel weird knowing that my Facebook friends have no idea I can see whenever they’re active from a giant display in my house. It’s weird for Portal to plaster a suggestion I call my boyfriend on a huge display. It’s uncomfortable having all my pictures just thrown up in a slideshow for everyone to see (so much so, I put a burlap bag over the Portal+). I know I can disable all those things, and it’s great that option is there. But at the same time, that’s not how these devices are meant to be used.

Even though I can opt out of features, I felt mildly better putting a burlap sack over the Portal+. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

Paradoxically, perhaps Facebook’s attempt at transparency is driving this discomfort. Knowing and seeing all the ways Facebook can access my data makes me think twice about how I use the Portal. I have an Amazon Echo Spot and an Echo Dot. I know those gadgets are always listening, and yeah, it does freak me out when Alexa responds to my TV or says something out of the blue. And yet, these devices aren’t constantly throwing the entirety of my social network and my photos into my face. Amazon’s evils are a Google search away, but it’s not quite so ingrained into my connections with others. If my Amazon data leaks, it’s probably my passwords, credit cards, or info about what I’m buying. The Google Home Hub can’t even do video calls. Even if Facebook says it won’t listen to my calls, the idea it could feels like inviting it to my most intimate moments and memories. That’s a potential violation that feels way more personal.

So, would I drop $200-$350 to invite Facebook into my home? Nah. I think I’ll stick to my phone. I know it’s not any safer or more private, but at least I get to keep the illusion that it is.

README:

  • Good hardware. The video and audio quality is solid; the smart camera is both creepy and cool.
  • Not much use besides video calling, though AR effects are quite fun.
  • Targeted at families; not a whole lot of reason for singles to drop all that money on a device when your phones can do more
  • Facebook put privacy front and centre in design, but there’s still a lot of mixed messaging
  • You HAVE to have a Facebook account to use this
  • The creepy factor is strong, even if you choose to opt out of most features