Facebook wasn’t enjoying a brilliant reputation for privacy and then it launched the Portal – in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed Facebook exposed 50 million users for political data gathering, and just after the breach of another 50 million Facebook accounts. Aware of its not quite sparkling rep, Facebook has been keen to big up how seriously the Portal takes user privacy.
The Portal’s 140-degree camera pans the room to track users – but without using facial recognition technology. Data from the camera and four microphones are processed on the device, so call data isn’t sent back to Facebook. It only sends audio data back to Facebook for processing upon hearing its wake word, “Hey Portal”, and during video calls.
Our network traffic test showed that during all usage, including video calling, the data sent to Facebook servers is encrypted. Only when the Portal detects its wake word, does it start DNS lookups for servers in order to send data back to its mothership.
The mic and camera are easy to turn off
A key concern has got to be that the Portal is an always-listening Facebook minion. Facebook hears that – a dedicated button turns off both the mic and camera in one fell swoop, which is something other smart speakers can’t claim. No amount of “Hey Portal” yodeling will turn it back on, which is reassuring. A physical off switch reduces the risk of a software-based hack on the mic or camera to sneakily listen in or watch the goings-on in your living room.
Once the mic and camera are off, a red light appears; a green light during calls indicates the video is on. Wary of video? There is that vaunted lens cover – which, once in our hands, feels rather like a last-minute, tacked-on means to convince users of the Portal’s pro-privacy nature.
This lens cover is a piece of molded plastic that does indeed fit snugly over the Portal’s central beady eye, but there’s no place on the device to keep it when you do want to use the whole video call function. This means you’ll simply need to have a piece of plastic lying on your kitchen countertop or coffee table, and easily mislaid.
Setup is secure
To set up the Portal, you need a Facebook account. However, to activate the Portal, you don’t sign into your account on the Portal, but via a browser or the Facebook app – in other words, using the secure login method of two-factor authentication.
As the login is kept on your computer or phone (bonus privacy points if you use a password manager), it diminishes the chance of someone stealing your credentials while they’re in transmission between the Portal and Facebook servers.
During setup, the network traffic between the device and Facebook is encrypted, and the setup mechanism is really handled via the website.
Anyone in the house can access the Portal
Unlike the Google Home, the Portal doesn’t recognize different voices, and so will respond to anyone saying “Hey Portal.” Although it supports multiple user accounts, anyone saying the magic words can thereby access the friend list of the logged-in user.
Kids, partners, guests and flatmates would be able to call anyone and see recent calls. Currently, the Portal doesn’t have text messaging capability – but should this feature be added, in line with Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo and Google Home, it could present a new privacy concern if anyone can read and send messages simply by waking the device.
It is possible to set up a PIN that automatically locks the Portal every time the screen times out – though that somewhat defeats the whole hands-free voice-activated point.
Superior video calls
With the 140-degree panning camera, this really is a top-notch video conferencing device, since you can move around the room and the AI-powered camera will track you, the caller – the AI recognizes humanoid shapes, without using facial recognition, says Facebook – while AI-powered audio tech minimizes background noise and optimizes your dulcet tones. Sound is clear and the image is sharp – not quite in-the-same-room clear and sharp, but certainly superior to video-calling on a smartphone or tablet.
A bunch of augmented reality effects add some novelty to the video call – you might wear a werewolf mask or a curiously deadpan cat on your head – while the Storytelling mode brings up a few children’s tales to be read out loud with animation, sound effects and more AR masks. This is a pretty great family-centric feature for parents who may be out of town often, although it does require them to tote the 1.75kg Portal along.
Outside the laser focus on making great video calls to other Messenger users, the Portal has a minimal range of capabilities – you can only command it to make calls, hang up, adjust the volume and open various apps. That’s unless Amazon’s Alexa app has been connected. With Alexa, its range of abilities extends to giving weather reports, playing Spotify and controlling smart home devices, although this version of Alexa has fewer skills than on Amazon’s Echo range of devices.
Delete audio logs – if you know where
What’s said in a video call doesn’t seem to be recorded; only voice commands that occur after the Portal is woken. You can see these commands, including who you asked the Portal to call, in your Facebook account (app or browser, not on the Portal), under Activity Log / Voice Interactions, and delete them singularly or all at once. However, it’s not made clear on the Portal itself that this is possible.
Photos screensaver isn’t for everyone
Under Settings, you can choose a screensaver to cycle through your Facebook photos – particular albums you’ve posted, your own profile pictures, pictures you’re tagged in or pictures your favorites were recently tagged in. Sounds like a great idea – unless the pictures are, like so many Facebook snaps, not terribly flattering or contain faces you don’t particularly want to see at home. (Another idea: Streaming Instagram snaps instead for more charmingly filtered photos.) Again, this points to how the Portal is really being positioned as a family device (or a device that sits in your room in that house you share) – because who wants their Facebook photos to be peeped at by everyone? The corollary is, why would you want to look at someone else’s photos, on repeat?
That said, you can stick with the Portal’s preloaded landscape images instead, although you will then always see a tiny link at the bottom-left beseeching you to Add Photos to “see your Facebook photos in Superframe”.
Minimal settings for privacy
There aren’t many privacy settings to tweak on the Portal itself. In its Settings menu, you can set Availability, which determines whether you appear as online in Messenger. There’s a clear statement that if you don’t wish your availability to be broadcasted, you need to have this setting disabled everywhere that Messenger is used, such as your phone or browser. This feature is by default on – which makes sense, as presumably if you have this device, it’s because you want to video-call other Facebook users.
You can also enable Home and Away, which allows you choose for calls to ring the Portal only when you’re home (determined by whether your phone, installed with the Facebook app, is near the Portal); always; or never on the Portal. This could be handy for multi-person households, since you can avoid having private calls being picked up or seen by someone else if you’re not home. This is by default turned off.
Two-factor authentication – where you input a code displayed by the Portal at a dedicated web link – is by default required to make these settings changes, including adding the handful of third-party apps currently available to extend the Portal’s capabilities (such as Alexa, YouTube, Spotify and Facebook’s curious Youtube clone, Watch).
Your data is as safe – or unsafe – as it is on Facebook
There are certainly a number of reassuring privacy features here: two-factor authentication to setup and make settings changes, video calls that aren’t saved or recorded, on-device camera and audio processing, the physical off button for the mic and camera.
What’s problematic is Facebook’s privacy record, and the fact the company has already walked back on previous claims that Portal calls will never be used for ad targeting. It has since confirmed that it will use metadata from video calls – who you call, when and for how long – in analysis that may include ad targeting across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
So if you’re a heavy Facebook user who often communicates with friends and family over Messenger, the Portal probably makes a lot of sense – you can cycle through those Facebook pictures, make excellent high-def video-calls to those friends you already call on Messenger, and get reminders for your favorites’ birthdays.
But for those who are rightfully wary of Facebook’s data collection practices, the Portal will feel like another extension of its land grab for user data – and one that doesn’t do a whole lot besides make calls to Facebook friends.