Opinion: Leave It To Facebook To Make Smart Speakers Even Creepier

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By Dominik Bosnjak October 31, 2018, 9:00am
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Between the Google+ privacy scandal and the company’s new hardware devices, as well as the Huawei Mate 20 and OnePlus 6T announcements and everything else that happened over the course of this month, you almost missed the fact that Facebook recently did something unsurprising-but-still-incredibly-surprising; as it turns out, all those reports about the company working on a smart speaker lineup were correct.

The jokes write themselves - the company that’s been in the middle of some of the biggest user data leaks ever — many of which happened just this year — now wants to put a camera in your house and mic it up. The firm whose co-founder and CEO routinely has to remind the general public that his company technically isn’t “a surveillance organization,” that was abused by foreign actors seeking to polarize the American public and influence its democratic process, as well as meddle with the dealings of other countries, a company whose entire business model lives and dies by how much data it can devour about you - now wants you to put its camera-microphone combo into your home. Better yet, it wants you to pay for the privilege, with the Portal starting at $199.

For just $150 extra, you’ll be able to get your hands on the Portal+ which will in turn be able to get Facebook’s eyes on your habits as the gadget will actually follow you with its gaze around the room thanks to its rotatory base. Sure, Facebook won’t literally be spying on your every move while you’re unaware of it and the Portal series of display-equipped speakers will only be fully functional while you’re actually using it for video calls. However, don’t forget the tech making the communication magic happen here is basically Messenger. In other words, all usage patterns and personal information collected by Facebook’s omnipresent IM app are also what the two Portal speakers will be gathering on you. Naturally, they might be even better at doing so seeing how they’ve been designed to be the center of one’s Internet-connected household.

No company should attempt to enter an entirely new market shortly after enduring a debacle the size of Cambridge Analytica that directly affects those ambitions. Facebook may even agree with that point to a degree as it originally wanted to launch the Portal family in May but postponed it to early October, hoping the public will move on in the meantime. That plan may have actually worked had the company not disclosed the largest data breach in its history just ten days prior to debuting its latest spying tools, revealing that around 30 million accounts were compromised after their access tokens allowing for repeated login-free sessions were stolen. Facebook’s response? Asking you for $350 so that it can put a machine that will harvest even more of your data that can get leaked further down the line. But hey, look at all these video chats! It really feels like the other person is right next to you because the camera follows you around… or something.

Facebook doesn’t completely lack self-awareness but apparently doesn’t have enough of it to just cut its losses, which really shouldn’t be that big of a deal seeing how the Portal speakers aren’t exactly revolutionary gadgets that sucked up a significant portion of its R&D budget. Sure, this is the first time its mysterious Building 8 actually delivered a consumer-grade product but at what cost and with what results? That self-awareness evident from the way Facebook markets these devices; go to portal.facebook.com and you’ll be greeted by a laughable line about these speakers being “private by design.” Why? Primarily because these products ship with a plastic lens cover that you literally slap on the front-facing camera lens. So, on one hand, Facebook knows its track record with user privacy is horrible enough to warrant including a literal cover for a camera it’s trying to sell but on the other, it apparently has a hard time grasping how such a necessity may indicate it shouldn’t be trying to pitch one to consumers in the first place. Would you buy a smoke detector from a company whose offices burned down on countless occasions in the past? Probably not, and that’s even if you could somehow obtain a guarantee the firm in question has the best intentions for you, which is hardly the case for a conglomerate whose entire business model relies on having hundreds of millions of people use its “free” services, then profile them for the purposes of ad targeting. One could say that same argument could be against Google and they’d be largely correct, though Alphabet’s subsidiary at least has a significantly better track record with keeping user data private and it’s been playing the information harvesting game for longer than Facebook.

So, when November 13 arrives and the two Portal speakers actually start shipping to customers, there’s a good chance both will be dead on arrival. Sure, the general public’s attention span isn’t particularly long but the sheer volume of Facebook’s recent privacy scandals should still be too much for the average American to take in and buy the Portal or Portal+ over something like the Echo Show that’s both cheaper, more versatile, and comes from a company that hasn’t been leaking user info en masse every other day since its inception. Alright, that last part was an embellishment. It probably happened every day.

Facebook’s growing hardware ambitions are still concerning; the sole fact that the Portal lineup actually happened even after all of those data scandals the company found itself in suggest this particular tech juggernaut is adamant to get into your home one way or another and will certainly keep trying until it succeeds. To make matters worse, the firm is barely even trying to address these issues and appears to be well-aware of the ridiculousness of its consumer electronics ambitions as it chose to pursue them with little transparency. Among other things, that’s also evidenced by the fact that numerous Facebook representatives failed to respond to a request for comment on this article for more than a week. All things considered, you can certainly leave it to Facebook to make something like smart speakers — a product category that already raises major digital privacy concerns — even creepier.

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October 31, 2018, 9:00am
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