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Facebook smart speaker may capture conversations for ad targeting

Image credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

A week after its release, Facebook has admitted that its ‘Portal’ smart speakers are capable of collecting data for use in ad personalisation.

Last week, Facebook revealed its first smart speaker, the Portal. The device – which is available for pre-order – operates using Amazon’s Alexa, and contains a large screen, built-in ‘AI-powered Smart Camera and microphones.

Users can sync their Facebook accounts to the speaker to make video calls using Facebook Messenger.

The announcement of the product sparked fresh privacy concerns following a number of high-profile scandals relating to Facebook’s failures to protect user data from hackers and intrusive advertisers. Most notably, in April it was reported that 87 million Facebook users’ data had been obtained without their knowledge or consent by consultancy Cambridge Analytica, in order to develop political advertising tools used by the 2016 Trump campaign. Recently, Facebook suffered its largest security breach to date when the data of 50 million users was exposed.

Reports suggest that Facebook cancelled a planned announcement of the home device earlier this year, as it would have coincided with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but decided to go ahead with the launch ahead of the holiday season.

Last week, Facebook provided reassurance that the device would not be intrusive, stating that no data collected from the smart speakers – such as app use or call log data – would be used to target ads. In an interview with Recode, Rafa Camargo, the Facebook VP in charge of Portal, had commented that Portal’s microphones would only listen when the device had been activated with use of the trigger words Alexa or Portal, so that no conversations taking place around the device at other times would be logged and processed.

“If we were going to do that, we’d just be killing our business. It makes no sense,” Camargo told Recode.

A week later, Facebook has released a contradictory statement to Recode, saying that Portal is capable of collecting data and using this to target ads, although it did not confirm that these capabilities will be put to use for ad targeting.

“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 call, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices,” a Facebook spokesperson said in their statement. “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.”

In a further statement to Recode, Camargo said that Facebook did not intend to use Portal for data collection, although it could potentially be used this way.

Despite concerns surrounding Facebook’s smart speaker, Portal does not stand out as exceptionally intrusive among market-leading smart speakers; Amazon has experimented with using their smart speakers to deliver ads and potentially to collect consumer information for more effective ad targeting.

Meanwhile, Facebook is being sued by a group of marketers who have accused the social media giant of inflating its advertising metrics by up to 900 per cent. The plaintiffs argue that the company did so knowingly in “unethical, unscrupulous” actions, which amount to fraud.

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