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Facebook wants customers to trust its new camera-enabled home gadget

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WATCH: Facebook is launching a new camera-enabled digital assistant called Portal, with the goal of connecting more people through video calls – Oct 9, 2018

Facebook is launching the first electronic device to bear its brand, a screen and camera-equipped gadget intended to make video calls easier and more intuitive.

But it’s unclear if people will open their homes to an internet-connected camera sold by a company with a questionable track record on protecting user privacy.

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Facebook is marketing the device, called Portal, as a way for its more than 2 billion users to chat with one another without having to fuss with positioning and other controls. The device features a camera that uses artificial intelligence to automatically pan and zoom as people move around during calls.

Since Echo’s release nearly four years ago, both Google and Apple have followed Amazon in releasing smart speakers designed for use with their other digital services — some of them, at least. These speakers can serve as hub-like controllers for “smart” homes as people install appliances, lighting and security systems that can be controlled over the internet.

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Portal represents Facebook’s entry into that fray. But pointing an artificially intelligent camera into peoples’ homes could well raise other privacy questions.

“The first thing consumers are going to wonder is ‘how much sensitive data is this collecting about me?’” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy of telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group that has received donations from Facebook and other tech companies.

Earlier this year, Facebook had to acknowledge that as many as 87 million people may have had their data accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a data mining firm that worked for the Trump campaign and aimed to use the data to influence elections. More recently, Facebook revealed that hackers managed to pierce its security to break into 50 million accounts.

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Facebook says it won’t store Portal video on its data centers. The device will allow users to disable the camera and microphone with a single tap and to lock it with a numerical passcode. Facebook also says it won’t store any of the video sent through the camera on the computers in its data centers. There’s also a physical camera cover to prevent recording.

“This is going to gain (Facebook) not only a place in the smart home, but also data they may not have been able to collect before or understand before,” Collins said. This includes people’s location, activities and interests — “all the reasons companies want to get into the home.”

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Facebook will offer Portal in two sizes — a US$199 model with a 10-inch horizontal screen and a $349 “Plus” version with a 15.6-inch screen that can switch between vertical or horizontal orientations.

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Both models also include an internet-connected speaker that includes Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant, Alexa. Portal connects calls through Facebook’s Messenger app, meaning that it can connect calls with people who aren’t using Portal.

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