The popular video game series “Portal” depicts a futuristic cyberhell in which an omniscient (and ultimately murderous) computer system taunts lab test participants, who are promised treats if they descend further into a corporate prison from which they cannot escape.
On Monday, Facebook unveiled its first hardware product: two tablet-like camera devices that can watch users in their homes. They’re called “Portals”.
“What if you could easily connect with your closest friends and family and feel like you’re in the same room — even when you’re miles apart?” Facebook asked in a Monday press release for Portal.
Nevermind that the proposal could describe a phone, a tablet, a Skype-enabled laptop, or any number of existing teleconferencing devices. Facebook was pitching something more specific: a smart home-style gadget that plays video calls through Facebook Messenger, and syncs to other products through Amazon’s Alexa software. A deluxe version of the Portal comes mounted on a motion-detecting swivel, allowing the camera to follow a user’s movements through the room.
The Monday product launch comes as Facebook attempts to wrangle its users, many of whom have quit the site after a series of data breaches (or attempted to quit, but discovered their Facebook login was essential to log into apps like Spotify or Tinder). A swiveling, camera-loaded smart home is the perfect product for a company losing track of its users.
The Portal ($199) and the Portal+ (swivel mounted, $349) are “built with privacy + security in mind,” Facebook said in its press release. Portal users can disable the camera and microphone. Although the device uses artificial intelligence to track a person’s movements and focus on their face, it does not use AI to identify that person, unlike Facebook’s photo-sharing platform, which uses facial recognition to match a person’s face with their name. Calls on the device are encrypted, and Facebook says it doesn’t store the contents of those calls. It will store voice commands, which a user can purge via Facebook’s Activity Log.
But the integration with Facebook might come as problem for privacy-minded users. Facebook is notorious for hoarding users’ data. A 2017 Gizmodo investigation found that Facebook had pieced together “shadow profiles” on users based on information they had not knowingly volunteered. Even if a user had not turned over their phone number or a work email address, Facebook could sometimes cull that information from other people’s address books, creating a fuller picture of the Facebook user and their relations.
The Facebook Portal will also be built on top of Amazon’s Alexa software, which listens for commands. Users have accused Alexa software of recording them without their knowledge and storing the recordings. In May, an Oregon woman learned that her Alexa had been sending those involuntary recordings to a random contact. Security researchers have also highlighted Alexa devices’ vulnerability to hacking.
And Facebook’s propensity for data breaches (users only learned of “shadow profiles” through a bug that suggested their existence) can land the hoarded data in the wrong hands.
Facebook’s Portal announcement comes fewer than two weeks after the company announced a data breach affecting more than 50 million users and six months after Facebook announced that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had scraped more than 87 million accounts and used the data to assemble psychological profiles of individual users.
But Facebook’s troubles run deeper than its security worries. It’s also losing users, recent surveys indicate.
A Pew Research Center study conducted from May to June found that nearly half of users ages 18 to 29 had deleted the Facebook apps from their phones. A similar number of people in the same age range said they’d taken a several-week break from the platform. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, users’ trust in Facebook plummeted from 79 percent to 27 percent, according to a survey by research firm the Ponemon Institute.
Even before the Cambridge Analytica news broke, Facebook use was on the decrease. In a January earnings report, the company announced that Facebook use had decreased by approximately 50 million daily hours since the previous quarter. That was good news, and the result of a deliberate news feed change that promoted fewer viral videos, Facebook said.
“By focusing on meaningful connections, our community and business will be stronger over the long term,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the earnings report. The Portal rollout on Monday came with similar family-first branding, including a picture of Zuckerberg’s two children playing with one of the Portal devices.
Behind Facebook’s kumbaya-style proselytizing about togetherness is a savvy marketing play: Facebook needs you online and looking at advertisements. It’s holding your cousin’s wedding photos hostage until you log in and, in doing so, accidentally look at an ad for Flat Tummy Tea or whatever. In the same January earnings call when Facebook announced a 50 million-hour daily drop in on-site time, it announced a 49 percent increase in advertising revenue since the previous year.
The tech giant’s best move might not be crafting an enjoying user experience (when is the last time you earnestly enjoyed being on Facebook?), but in making itself inescapable. When users tried to quit after Cambridge Analytica, they learned that they’d used their Facebook accounts to sign up for services like Spotify, and that they could no longer access those accounts. Facebook had made itself a universal login key for better websites.
The Facebook Portal is a physical encroachment into users’ lives. If put to its fullest use, the device will act as a smart home, connected to other accounts and dutifully listening in on domestic life. And quitting a device is harder than logging off. You can delete the Facebook app from your phone with few consequences, but hauling an expensive tablet to the curb for trash pickup is a more significant gesture.
Facebook Portals are scheduled to start shipping in November. But whether anyone buys the $199-$349 tablets remains to be seen.
Facebook’s previous half-step in hardware was a disaster. In 2013, it launched the Facebook Home, a smartphone interface. Facebook didn’t physically make the phones, but a collaboration with HTC meant that some Android phones (particularly a doomed line called HTC First) came preloaded with the software. Users complained that the user interface prioritized Facebook so heavily that other apps became inconvenient to use. Tech writer Om Malik blasted the program as “destroying any notion of privacy.”
“If you install this, then it is very likely that Facebook is going to be able to track your every move, and every little action,” Malik wrote, noting that Facebook was “a company that is known to have played loose-and-easy with consumer privacy and data since its very inception, asking for forgiveness whenever we caught them with its hand in the cookie jar.”
That was in 2013, years before Facebook’s highest-profile data breaches. The Facebook phone tanked, with retailers putting the HTC First on sale for 99 cents less than two months after its launch.