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Facebook Debuts Its Portal at a Critical and Controversial Time

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Amid chatter about privacy concerns, Facebook announced its sophisticated—if skeptically received—entry into the smart speaker market.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced its foray into the smart speaker/camera market, the video conferencing tool Portal. Featuring high-quality speakers to allow flawless streaming from apps like Spotify or Pandora and powered by Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, Portal stands apart in the market by prioritizing video phone calls, made through the platform’s Messenger system.

Portal’s Points of Distinction

Facebook seems excited to stake its claim on the smart speaker market—likely after a high-profile swing and miss in the smartphone market—and has announced a few distinguishing features that make its reception attractive. The “AI-powered smart camera” was developed to “free” users from the constraints of a frame; the camera will move and adjust to follow a moving target. And the announced Storytime feature, where a user can share a bedtime story through a teleprompter-like feature, makes it an additional draw for growing families separated by distance.

What Of the Portal’s Privacy?

In reporting on the product’s launch, however, Recode’s Kurt Wagner presents a crucial point for those considering buying the device: “The most important question with Portal, though, is also the most obvious: does Facebook have enough credibility to convince people to put a Facebook-powered camera and microphone in their home?” In some ways addressing Wagner’s question, NYMag’s Intelligencer column was named, “The Facebook Portal Could Be Good If Anyone But Facebook Released It.”

Facebook has been no stranger to controversy in the past year, particularly around issues of privacy. In fact, the Portal’s release announcement came days after Facebook announced a security weakness that exposed up to 50 million users’ personal information. The figure was later adjusted to 29 million, but still represents a sensitivity that Facebook seems ill-equipped to address. Consumer behavior is already adjusting to this new reality; Pew reported earlier this year that 44% of 18-29 year olds had deleted the Facebook app from their phones.

But should that Pew report be believed?

In the wake of this latest breach, VP Guy Rosen insisted the company would “do everything it can to earn users’ trust.” The observant will note that this verbiage echoes impassioned pleas from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a mere seven months ago. It’s justifiable to wonder how many more times such pleas will need to be made—and how the Portal could contribute to such a problem.

Getting Ahead of the Skeptics

Perhaps anticipating worries about the Portal’s privacy measures, many questions have already been addressed. All calls will be encrypted, and will not be recorded or even seen by Facebook. The camera will not capture video when not in use, microphones will not be engaged unless expressly summoned with a “Hey Alexa,” and both can be manually shut off to prevent recording when not in use. Further, no data will be mined from conversations, and targeted ads will not be tailored based on any information shared in private calls.

Announcing these features proactively could help boost confidence in the Portal, but ultimately time will tell if these measures—combined with flashy features—will be enough to entice consumers.

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