Thank You, But No: Facebook’s “Portal” Is A Wild Misjudgment

By on November 2nd, 2018 in Blog Posts, Privacy & Security, Societal Impact

A FutureProof blog post

Facebook’s latest Orwellian offering, Portal (and Portal +, of course!) is making this privacy advocate cringe. Teaming up with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, the kludgey device promises to bring people together for video calls, to listen to music together, you know – to connect the world! Other enticements include the ability to be followed about a room as one walks around, or to have cinematic zoom engaged on one’s surveilled face (more like hanging out together!) as the device listens, listens, listens.¬†And watches?

Now that Portal has received its early reviews amid news of that Facebook’s growth seems to be stalling, Zuckerberg’s adopted “move fast and break things” motto seems to be failing Facebook. In a miss that evokes Bill Gates’ omission of the Internet in his 1995 book The Road Ahead, Forbes reports that Facebook failed to properly account for the development of voice recognition technology. So users of Portal will actually be using… Alexa.

Rafa Camargo, the product VP in charge of Portal, says that privacy is “built into every layer.”

Perhaps Facebook’s failure to create its own voice recognition technology is a blessing.

What does that mean, coming as it does from a company whose leader refuses to fully acknowledge and take real responsibility for everything from crimes committed on camera via Facebook Live (imagine the cinematic possibilities now), to inciting genocide in Myanmar (as cited by the United Nations), to providing a global platform for the dissemination of disinformation impacting the US elections of 2016? Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the United States Senate may have benefited from the archaic knowledge of some Senators, but it suffered from the founder’s naked display of arrogance, disingenuousness, and that ultimate mark of the tech bro: A complete refusal to admit his errors. Perhaps Facebook’s failure to create its own voice recognition technology is a blessing.

A recent informal survey of technically adept colleagues indicated that almost none use Alexa or other always-listening technologies.

Despite the company’s reassurances about privacy, users are backing away. Pew Research found that Americans are changing their relationship with Facebook in ways that should encourage the company to radically address privacy and user rights, instead of pushing an even more intrusive offering into the home. Younger users (and, I would offer, tech professionals) are likelier to control privacy settings on Facebook than older users. That seems to indicate a widely underestimated need for concern about misuse of both software and hardware products. A recent informal survey of this writer’s more technically adept colleagues indicated that almost none use Alexa or other always-listening technologies; those who do place strict limitations on the use of these devices.

They are not users with rights; they are the product, and the rights (and profits) belong to the data miners and marketers.

There’s really no reason to linger over Portal’s tech specs. Gizmodo’s brutal conclusion on the potential adoption of Portal is really all we need to know: people who don’t care about anything anymore may well adopt it. Be it novelty, lack of knowledge, or exhibitionism, some people will willingly place this device in their homes.

And the buyers/users will be paying Facebook for the dubious privilege of being uncompensated beta testers.

Even people who are loath to learn about technology are becoming concerned about their new-found status. They are not users with rights; they are the product, and the rights (and profits) belong to the data miners and marketers. While the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept is much touted by developers of software, the application of MVP to Portal is a bad call for Facebook’s business, because people take it badly when expensive physical products fail to deliver. And the buyers/users will be paying Facebook for the dubious privilege of being uncompensated beta testers.

But isn’t this how the USS Enterprise captured those cinematic views of the bridge? Actually, it starts to feel more like George Lucas’ uberveillance masterpiece, THX-1138, where a huge two-way video screen in a person’s home can never be turned off completely. Perhaps the part Lucas left out of the story was that the citizens of THX-1138’s world rushed out to buy those surveillance screens with their own money from a fabulously rich, proven con artist.