Facebook Portal’s claims to protect user privacy are falling apart

A week ago, when Facebook announced Portal, I noted that its launch had been stymied by trust issues. The recent news of a data breach affecting millions of users had activated the press’ cynicism about Facebook — which is never far from the surface even on a good day — and so Portal’s reception was defined almost entirely by its potential for privacy violations.

On Tuesday, before Portal could even materialize in stores, privacy issues once again came to the fore. The issue is Facebook’s system for collecting data for advertising purposes. When first writing about Portal, Recode’s Kurt Wagner wrote: “No data collected through Portal — even call log data or app usage data, like the fact that you listened to Spotify — will be used to target users with ads on Facebook.” Wagner was told that by the Facebook executives demonstrating Portal for him.

But in a follow-up report, Wagner reported that those executives had unwittingly misled him:

Facebook has since reached out to change its answer: Portal doesn’t have ads, but data about who you call and data about which apps you use on Portal can be used to target you with ads on other Facebook-owned properties.

“Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads,” a spokesperson said in an email to Recode.

The conclusion is inescapable, and would seemingly bode ill for Facebook’s home hardware line: Even when the company appears to be going out of its way to collect less data about you than usual, making a show of how the device is “private by design,” its own spokespeople can still struggle to articulate exactly what they are collecting, and how it might be used.

Incidentally, at least with respect to Portal’s use of Messenger infrastructure, I’m willing to bet the Portal team didn’t even know until recently that call data could be used to target ads at Facebook users. It’s entirely possible that the contours of the company’s data-collection operation are broader than most employees can even keep in their heads at any given time.

All of which might give you some pause before you pre-order your Portal.

In any case, Tuesday was an inopportune time for Facebook to announce even more plans for the living room, but Alex Heath did it for them anyway. He revealed the existence of a project codenamed Ripley: a camera that you plug into your TV to turn it into a big Portal:

The world’s largest social network is building a camera-equipped device that sits atop a TV and allows video calling along with entertainment services like Facebook’s YouTube competitor, according to people familiar with the matter.

The project, internally codenamed “Ripley,” uses the same core technology as Facebook’s recently announced Portal video chat device for the home. Portal begins shipping next month and uses A.I. to automatically detect and follow people as they move throughout the frame during a video call.

Like Portal before it, Ripley represents a logical extension of Facebook’s bid to insert a social graph and camera into all of the screens in your life. And also like Portal, it drew mostly exasperated tweets.

You can get people to hate-read a story, but you can’t get them to hate-buy a video phone. Facebook’s case that Portal is “private by design” has fallen apart before it even shipped, and consumers who were on the fence about buying one may just have fallen off for good.