It’s the beginning of the end for Meta’s Portal display. The company quietly removed the app for Microsoft Teams from the Portal app store in recent weeks, a little over a year after the video chat service first became available on Meta’s smart displays.
The change, which also includes Microsoft’s Intune app, was first noticed by Portal owners on Reddit; I was able to confirm it with Meta PR. “The Teams app works for Portal users who already have the app downloaded, but we’ve stopped new downloads of the app,” a Meta spokesperson told me via email.
The past few months have been a bit of a roller coaster for Portal owners. Last summer, news broke that Meta was repositioning Portal from a consumer-focused smart display to a device for enterprise and work-from-home use cases. Then, in November, Meta announced that it was going to discontinue the Portal altogether.
“Moving ahead, folks will still be able to use their Portal to call family and friends,” Meta’s spokesperson told me. “However, they’ll see changes to the experiences and apps available as content and features change over time.”
Messaging around this has been haphazard. Meta’s Portal site still proclaims an ongoing shift “to support productivity and work” — the kind of thing you may want Teams for — and its help page still tells people how to install the very Teams app that’s not available in the Portal app store anymore.
All of this has got some Portal owners wondering: Why doesn’t Meta just let them unlock the Android-based device to sideload apps? It’s a fair question, and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you may have seen a few stories about how companies can sunset devices in ways that are both customer-friendly and don’t lead to unnecessary e-waste.
However, at least in the case of Meta’s Portal, unlocking the device may be the worst possible solution, thanks to its powerful hardware. The company’s 10” Portal, for instance, is equipped with a 13-megapixel camera with a 103° field of view. It also packs four far-field microphones, and the Portal’s software is able to keep video chat participants in frame as they move about the room.
Now imagine all of this on an unlocked device: microphones capable of picking up conversations from several feet away combined with a powerful camera meant to track people on a device running sketchy apps downloaded from third-party app stores. What could possibly go wrong?
“That does seem pretty scary,” Pete Warden, CEO of Useful Sensors, said when I presented such a scenario to him.
Useful Sensors is a startup that’s been building tiny cameras and other smart sensors to bring machine learning capabilities to third-party devices. Warden believes that there will eventually be camera sensors for presence detection, gesture control, and similar applications in virtually every appliance, and he’s thought a lot about the privacy implications of that future.
With the Portal, Meta focused heavily on security, stumping enthusiasts who subsequently tried to hack it. As Warden noted to me, if the company was to simply unlock it, the Portal would effectively be as secure as an old computer — except that most people don’t keep their computers running 24/7 at home, and most built-in webcams aren’t nearly as powerful as the Portal’s sensors. “If people can upload anything they want to it and there are no security updates,” he said, “then it’s going to be even worse than a laptop.”
Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth told Buzzfeed that the company had sold “millions” of Portal units. Disappointing those buyers is not a great move. But it would be a far worse public relations nightmare if just one unlocked Portal with added stalkerware got sold on Ebay and was then used to spy on the unsuspecting buyer.
Meta’s Portal conundrum is a sign of things to come for the consumer electronics industry, especially since Warden’s vision of a future with cameras in every device doesn’t seem that far off anymore. Case in point: Just last month, Razer introduced a new soundbar with an integrated always-on camera.
How can device makers rise to the occasion and ensure that their new camera-equipped gadgets don’t become stalkerware nightmares when their end of life approaches? “You have to design failsafe privacy,” Warden told me.
Some companies have already been moving in that direction. The first-generation Portal didn’t have a physical camera shutter, but Meta changed that for subsequent models, and physical mute buttons have become standard on most smart speakers. Increasingly, companies also keep speech recognition and other machine learning features locally on the devices they build, reducing latency and doing away with the need to send voice and other sensor data to the cloud.
The next logical step is to also put privacy first when the end of life for these devices approaches. That means finding ways to keep audio and video data safe even when a device will no longer receive updates. And in many cases, the safest way to sunset a device with a camera or microphone will be to sunset or even brick it — even if that leads to more e-waste, and to disappointment among tinkerers and early adopters.
Janko Roettgers is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech and entertainment. He publishes a weekly newsletter about streaming, AR/VR and more called Lowpass.
Fazal Majid says
The right thing to do would be what Meta itself did with the Oculus Go, and release a tool to root it. Otherwise, work with an open-source organization like LineageOS to port its OS to the Portal platform.
That said, if bricking Portals is what it takes for the public to learn never to trust hardware the surveillance-industrial complex, it’s a small price to pay.