On Monday morning Facebook announced Portal, a new hardware component similar to an iPad that allows people to video chat with friends via the social network. As a video released by the company explains, a roving camera built in to the device can track your movements to ensure you’re in frame during a conversation. You know, exactly the kind of thing any reasonable person would be enthused to purchase from Facebook right now.
The product’s debut comes in the wake of myriad high-profile scandals that have dogged Facebook this year. Only weeks ago, the company confirmed a security breach by hackers affected 50 million accounts. A day prior, reporting from Gizmodo detailed the company’s invasive advertising practices. In April, the Cambridge Analytica data-mining crisis saw Mark Zuckerberg grilled by the United States Senate over a tense and highly publicized two days in Washington DC.
Unlike everything else offered by Facebook, Portal and its larger counterpart Portal+ can be yours for a price, at $199 and $349, respectively. Portal’s rollout speaks to the company’s ambition to trade in hardware in addition to web content. It draws parallels to Facebook’s ill-fated partnership with HTC, which twice delivered to market smartphones with baked-in Facebook apps. (Zuckerberg promised Facebook phones would be a very big thing in 2011, but you’re not holding one now, are you?)
Portal comes with an AI-enabled smart camera and sound, with Amazon’s Alexa serving as its home assistant. The company ensures that Portal’s cameras run locally and not on Facebook’s servers. “Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling,” the company says. Users can also disable Portal’s microphone or physically shutter its camera in the Zuckerberg style. In other words, Facebook maintains that your data will remain yours—which you have every reason to take as a cold comfort.
In a world already full of video chat apps and home assistance, Facebook’s addition is late to the party and and arriving with awkward timing given the company’s past year of PR nightmares. And that’s to say nothing of Facebook’s business model syphon your data for the sake of advertising revenue when it’s not leaking that data to outside sources. On top of all that, Portal is sure to add fire to the common (but mostly unfounded) conspiracy theory that Facebook’s app eavesdrops on conversations to target people with ads.
But if you’re still using Facebook in spite of all that’s been unfolding, maybe it actually makes sense to just dive all the way in.