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OPED: Wrong time for a Facebook surveillance device

Shira Ovide
Bloomberg News
This image provided by Facebook shows the company's product called Portal. Facebook is marketing the device 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. (Facebook via AP)

Facebook Inc. constantly asks its users how they’re feeling about the social network. Those temperature checks of more than 2 billion people must give the company evidence that it has passed the peak of public suspicion stirred by its fumbles in protecting people’s digital information, doubts about the company’s political motives and scandals about its role as a tool for foreign propagandists, conspiracy theorists and violent mobs.

Facebook knows its audience — or at least it has a lot of information about it. But I think Facebook is still misreading the mood.

Facebook on Monday unveiled two home gadgets for video chats like those on Skype or FaceTime. The company has been working on video conference hardware for some time but decided to put the project on hold earlier this year because of public outrage about Facebook’s data-privacy practices.

With the debut of the Portal device and its sibling, the Portal+, the company has apparently decided that now is the right time to persuade Americans to put Facebook microphones, data-harvesting technologies and video cameras inside their homes. To which I say — nope. And also, why?

Offering devices that sit permanently in living rooms and facilitate conversations with friends and family is a different kind of intimate relationship than people already have with Facebook.

The company has made technology tweaks to the Portal devices to guard people’s privacy. Bloomberg News reported that the microphone and camera can be turned off, and some of the computing functions are done on the devices themselves rather than by firing digital information back-and-forth to Facebook’s computer systems.

These devices are still too much of a leap of faith right now for Facebook to ask of its users. I can’t understand why Facebook is risking the fragile faith of the public and government officials by releasing hardware that seems at best ancillary to its business future. Is now really the right time to pitch Americans on Facebook-branded home surveillance devices?

Remember that the company has forever tried to bat down conspiracy theories that it taps smartphone microphones to collect information about people’s phone calls and private conversations. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even had to address that question from members of Congress. When people already suspect that Facebook is spying on them, it is a bridge too far to ask them to plant a literal Facebook listening device in their homes.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring found that a large share of Americans reported taking breaks from using Facebook. Another Pew poll found a majority of Americans of all political affiliations believe social networks censor political speech that the companies find objectionable. In North America, daily use of Facebook has flatlined, although it’s not clear that is a result of its image problem. None of this is solid proof that Facebook’s many scandals have turned people away from using the social network, but they are data points that people may not like or trust Facebook wholeheartedly.

Again, Facebook may have a better handle on people’s faith in Facebook products than anyone else, including me. Or the company may be blind to public sentiment. I was stunned that after months of controversy about how Facebook mishandled people’s personal information, Zuckerberg, in an interview in May with Wired, seemed surprised at a question about possible public backlash to a Facebook online dating service he had just announced.

It’s possible that even as Zuckerberg and others at Facebook apologize at every turn for violating the public’s trust, they still don’t really grasp how much they violated the public’s trust. It wouldn’t be the first time that Facebook’s instincts are wrong.

Facebook isn’t completely clueless. The company is savvy enough to address doubts up front about data-privacy protections for the Portal devices. Contrast that with Amazon.com Inc., which last month announced a dizzying number of new gadgets powered by the company’s Alexa voice-activated software. Amazon didn’t devote a single moment to talking about protecting the information of people who elect to put an all-knowing, always-listening Amazon data-harvesting device in their homes and cars. Given the justified public concerns about digital privacy, this was a stunning omission by Amazon.

Facebook has far more baggage than Amazon, of course. Credit Facebook for making its video chat devices less creepy than they could have been, but that doesn’t make them creepy-free. The public is already inclined to be wary about Facebook and its intentions. That’s why it makes little sense for Facebook to test people’s fragile faith when it has relatively little to gain.

— Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.