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Facebook's new portal Smart Displays: Who listens and what happens to your data?

The new Facebook fleet of Portal Smart Displays wants a place in your home.

James Martin / CNET

Facebook unveiled three new versions of its Smart Display on Wednesday – a "mini" version with an 8-inch screen for $ 129, a $ 179 version with a 10-inch screen Screen (in the same size) as Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub Max and as a stand-alone Kinect-like camera accessory that costs $ 1

49 and allows you to use your entire TV as a portal device.

With an AI-powered "Smart Camera" that allows you to move around in a picture during a call, and with the same microphones for voice output. activated controls as originals . You can say "Hey, Portal" to enable it and make a video call or other number of functions, and you can say "Alexa" to access the full features of the Amazon Digital Assistant.

  The future is private

After numerous privacy issues and scandals have surfaced, Facebook tries to assure consumers that you can trust your information.

James Martin / CNET

This means that every portal is also associated with privacy concerns. After all, this is Facebook, a company that recently received a $ 5 billion fine for data breaches from the Federal Trade Commission and a fine of $ 100 million from the United States US Securities Exchange has received Commission . Each of them came from the announcement of Facebook in March 2018 that the political advice Cambridge Analytica years before had incorrectly accessed the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users . Cambridge Analytica is now accused of having used this stolen data to influence follow-up figures around the world, including the 2016 presidential campaign and the British Brexit vote, users of colossal injury until well after learning and only after The New York Times and the Guardian wanted to tell stories about the scandal.

"For more than two years, Facebook's public announcements presented the risk of misusing user data as purely hypothetical when Facebook knew that a third party was actually abusing Facebook user data," the SEC said.

In other words, anyone considering bringing a Facebook brand device into their home listening to microphones and an AI camera should first consider Facebook's privacy practices. So, let's do that.


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Is Facebook listening? (Not listening?)

Facebook's portal devices use the same kind of microphones as other smart displays, meaning they always wait for the words they're calling (in this case "Hey, Portal"). When you speak the wake-up words, the device turns on and begins recording the audio of everything you say next. From there, the device sends this audio snippet to the Facebook cloud to find out how to respond.

Other voice-enabled Smart Assistant gadgets work that include Amazon's Alexa devices, Google Home's Smart Speakers, Google Nest's Smart Displays, and assistants such as Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. This is how these language assistants work if you use them on your phone.

The logical consequence: What are these companies doing with these audio snippets, some of which may contain background conversations that are not intended for sharing? Is someone listening to them?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. Both Amazon and Google admitted to earlier this year that they had commissioned contractors to listen to such recordings to refine the skills of their respective assistants. Apple and Microsoft soon followed suit. The human review of user audio data was a standard practice for all.

The Facebook portal and Smart Portal mini-displays send audio information about your voice queries to the Facebook servers to find out how to respond. Facebook stores this audio and can listen to it to optimize the features of the device. You can disable the storage and potential playback of audio in the device settings.

Juan Garzon / CNET
From there, Apple announced that the verification of Siri voice recordings is possible only after activation by the user. In the meantime, Amazon allows Alexa users to disable user verification in the Alexa app. Google suspended the practice after the German regulators had completely banned it . Microsoft states that playback of Xbox Records was discontinued, though apparently Skype translations are still on the table .

And Facebook? The company admitted that it also paid [1945901] contractor for the transmission of messenger calls to improve the service. After a short break, this exercise will be available again as these new portal devices will start. But now you have the opportunity to say "No thanks".

"If you have enabled the memory that is the default, then this can be reviewed by people, by a team of trained reviewers, to improve overall voice services," said a Facebook spokesperson. "These can be deleted individually, of course, or you can disable the memory altogether, and then they can not be reviewed or saved."

This is a good option – but many want to disable user review by default and only be available to those who choose it. So far, Apple is the only company that claims to pursue this approach.

OK, so who's listening?

In most cases, companies like Facebook, which have recognized the human verification of user audio, state that they hire external contractors for the job.

"There are vendors who have really specialized in this and who are really good at it," said a Facebook spokesperson. "Getting the right people to review voice recordings makes the service a lot better, and makes it more complete."

However, Facebook adds that company employees may also hear user audio.

"There are specialists" Who are providers? "Added the spokesman." We like to use them. They are subject to very strict protocols regarding their handling. But we also use a mix of people when appropriate. "

And what does" reasonable "mean? I've asked Facebook but have not received a reply, so I'll update this area if that changes. [19659034] Each portal device has a physical shutter that can cover the camera lens when you are not using it.

James Martin / CNET

Can I hide this camera?

Yes. You can cover the camera of each portal with a physical shutter when not in use.

Good for Facebook – that's better than the Google Nest Hub Max and the Amazon Echo Show each of which skipped the trigger in favor of a Digital Kill Switch that electronically disables the camera without covering it. At least Amazon seemed to notice that consumers were content with a snap when they added one to their latest smart display, the Mini Echo Show 5 .

As for the portal, Facebook adds that it's the camera's motion tracking capabilities, and the microphone's audio enhancement features are all processed locally on each portal device and never sent to the Facebook cloud. Meanwhile, messenger calls are encrypted during transmission and WhatsApp calls are encrypted end to end. Facebook emphasizes that it does not monitor, display or maintain the content of your portal video calls.

What if I do not use them?

That's fine – but unless you've changed them When the shutter is off or closed, the camera and microphone are always on. Do you collect other data about you?

"When the camera and the microphone of the portal are on, which you can control, we capture camera and audio information," says Facebook's companion data policy for the portal devices. The following describes the data that will be collected on each call. According to Facebook, these are the same data collected during a call from other messenger-enabled devices.

"This information can include the volume, the number of received bytes, or the frame resolution," reads the current policy. In a new Facebook privacy document, which will come into effect on October 15 (the day of the launch of the new portal and the new Portal Mini), the language will be changed as follows:

"When using the camera or microphone of the Portals make a call, we collect technical data about your call, such as volume, number of bytes received or image resolution. "

This sounds harmless, and in the latter version, Facebook indicates something more to the To characterize data as purely technical information, but I'm still skeptical when a company uses terms such as "may include" or "how" for details the various types of data it collects. After all, both sentences mean a non-exhaustive list that raises an obvious follow-up question: Can this list contain anything else?

And what if you do not make a call? If the device sits only where it is connected to your kitchen counter, does it quietly take notes on your daily routine?

I asked Facebook these and some other data policy questions, but did not get any answers. I will update this area if this changes.

For the sake of transparency, I've inserted the text from the Facebook Data Guideline for Portal Devices into a Google document and provided the exact questions I've asked the company regarding each section. You can see this document along with the answers from Facebook by clicking here. So far the company has not answered any of my questions, but I will add these answers to every note as soon as I receive them.


Is Facebook following my face?

Facebook has a long history with facial recognition . Since 2010, the company uses the technology to identify the faces in photos uploaded to its social network that you can disable . Last year, plaintiffs in Illinois, where collection of facial data is regulated under the Biometric Information Privacy Act, filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook in which they alleged that the company did not protect users' privacy through the use of facial recognition violated explicit consent. Last month, a federal appeals court dismissed Facebook's offer to rally the case 3: 0, exposing the company to billions of potential claims.

However, the cameras in the Facebook portal devices do not use facial recognition technology at all, the company says.

"At the moment we understand faces, but we do not understand your face," a Facebook spokesperson explained. "So we can look at features like eyes and mouth and things like that and help us put things like putting an AR mask on your face."

Facebook's Portal Devices Track facial features such as noses and eyes to place augmented reality masks over your face during video chats. But they do not track or recognize individual faces, says Facebook.

James Martin / CNET

This distinguishes the portal devices from Google Nest Hub Max which uses face recognition to show individual users personalized information from their Google Accounts. Google calls the feature Face Match and told us first that all processing takes place locally on each user's device. If you use this feature, this is the case in real time. However, due to the small print of the product, it becomes apparent that occasionally sends your face data to the Google Cloud to ensure that the feature works in multi-user homes. and so new features can be tested before they are transferred to users' devices.

"We occasionally use the images you provide during the setup to generate a facial model in the cloud for a variety of reasons to specifically enhance your product experience on Nest Hub Max and motivated by the fact that we have more computing power in the cloud, "said Google.

That does not seem to be a problem for the portal.

Will this matter impact? Which advertisement do I see?

Yes. If you use Facebook or a Facebook device, such as the Portal, it is part of the fine print that you agree to share information with the company, and that the company may use that information to target ads that you target Your interests might be relevant.

"We capture the same information as other Facebook properties," said a Facebook spokesperson. "If you use Facebook Watch, for example, we know what you are seeing right now, and we will use this to prioritize things that you want to see, and there are things that our ad system uses there. "

The portal's main use case is video calls. Do the calls you make affect the ads that are included in your feed?

A video call with Portal TV.

Juan Garzon / CNET

"The best way to see this honestly is like a mobile phone," said a Facebook spokesperson. "And it runs Messenger, it runs Facebook Watch and WhatsApp is running, so it uses the same services in the same way your phone uses those services, and when you use Messenger, we have an awareness of who you know the call was initiated and who received the call and how long the call lasted, and you can imagine him advertising on Facebook, for example: & # 39; This is a person making video calls. & # 39;

"That is relatively unlikely," the spokesman added. The amount of data we generate here is very, very low. It certainly is not material. It's certainly not the point of the product. But something could happen too.

Will Facebook pass my data to the police?

Something else could happen – law enforcement shows interest in people's hijacking data. It happened earlier when the FBI wanted it to force Facebook the Messenger Talking of MS-13 Gang Members Talking Police have shown great interest in data collected from other devices including Alexa speakers and portable fitness trackers Voice calls of the gang members, Facebook argued that it could not meet the requirements of the FBI, since Messenger has an end-to-end encryption, which meant that the app would have to be completely rewritten for it In the end, the Ministry of Justice was unable To persuade Facebook to break its own encryption even though it was reportedly trying to keep the company in court.

The current version of the Facebook privacy policy for portal devices does not mention this law enforcement – but the new version, which comes into effect on October 15, does so.

"We can also share voice interactions with third parties if we believe in good faith that this is required by law," it says.

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