It sounded a little slippery last week, when Facebook announced Portal, a new voice-activated speaker and video chat gadget, and the company said that it would not use data collected through the device to target ads. It was, in fact, very slippery. Facebook just admitted that Portal is completely capable of collecting data about you and using that data to target ads. But don’t worry, Facebook probably won’t do this right away.
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The miscommunication is confusing to say the least. Recode originally reported that “no data collected through Portal… will be used to target users with ads on Facebook.” Now, a full week later, Facebook has recanted that claim. Despite the fact that the company had said no data collected will be used for ad targeting, the Portal is fully capable of being a data-collection monster, and that data can absolutely be used for ad targeting. The company said in a statement:
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.
It seems like this was a simple case of Facebook saying one thing and meaning the complete opposite of that thing. In a follow up interview, Facebook’s Rafa Camargo told Recode, “I think [my colleague] was intending to say that we don’t intend to use it. Potentially, it could be used.”
This is embarrassing. It seems like Facebook’s communications team either screwed up on purpose and got caught, or they simply didn’t know how the new device worked. Either way, everyone who might have been thinking about spending $200 or more on a Facebook-made gadget that put Facebook-powered microphones and cameras in their home now knows that Facebook designed all of this to be capable of collecting information about their lives that they could turn into profits via ads.
Facebook isn’t alone in this ambition. The company follows Amazon and Google in using voice-activated speakers as potential data collection devices. Amazon has been a little more brazen about this. After all, it made an Echo device that used a camera to analyze people’s outfits and uses that information to recommend clothes to buy. There are also scattered reports that the company has plans to recommend specific brands when you ask Alexa about certain things. Google, meanwhile, isn’t actively eavesdropping on you, but it has been experimenting with introducing ads to various Home devices. Notably, Google did not put a camera in its new Home Hub, citing customers’ privacy concerns.
Well, we’ve known for years that Facebook struggles with privacy and security. It’s been nearly a decade since Mark Zuckerberg famously said that privacy was no longer a “social norm,” and even though Facebook tried to backtrack on that claim for years, the company just keeps screwing up. The Cambridge Analytics scandal that reared its head this past spring served as a painful reminder that Facebook’s own policies had led to the personal information of tens of millions of users leaking out into the wild and being exploited. Then, it was only last week that Facebook admitted that a data breach had compromised the personal data of some 30 million users. In other words, whether by design or by accident, Facebook can’t protect people’s privacy.
But as many people have said before, Facebook wants your data, because Facebook is a data company. It makes a lot of money by harvesting user data from billions of people, because it can sell targeted ads with that data. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Facebook’s first big push into the hardware space will amplify this data collection, and it shouldn’t be a shock if the company decides to sell ads against it. It is pretty remarkable, however, that the company’s being so damned disorganized about doing so.