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Facebook’s UK Portal Giveaway Could Compromise Care-Home Residents’ Privacy

By Robert Bateman

Facebook Inc. is partnering with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) to distribute 2,050 Facebook Portal devices among care-home residents.

Portal, Facebook’s “smart home” device, features “always listening” voice activation and video calling via Messenger and WhatsApp. The device’s “Smart Camera” recognizes human figures and automatically will track them around a room. 

In announcing the donation, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said in a news release, “It is great to see Facebook giving care-home residents and patients the devices they need to connect with their family and friends at such a challenging time.”

A pilot of the project early last month saw 50 devices distributed across four U.K. sites. The Portal giveaway now appears to be being rolled out across the U.K. 

Portal’s release was delayed because of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, and initial sales reportedly were low. 

But some privacy experts question whether Facebook makes an appropriate corporate partner for the NHS.

“Facebook gets to feel good and pretend they’re actively helping others, while mostly doing what they would have done anyway.”

Sam Smith, medConfidential

“The tech industry has a long history of trying to dump failed products on the public sector,” Sam Smith, project lead at U.K. medical-privacy charity medConfidential, told Digital Privacy News.

“No one really bought a Portal, but if it’s used to talk to Grandma, then people won’t delete Facebook.

“Facebook gets to feel good and pretend they’re actively helping others, while mostly doing what they would have done anyway,” Smith said.

Digital Privacy News has approached the U.K. government and Facebook, seeking more information about the project. Neither Facebook or the government has yet to respond.

According to 2017 government figures, the U.K. care-home sector is worth around 15.9 billion pounds ($19.6 billion), with approximately 410,000 residents across nearly 11,300 homes.

‘Private by Design’

Facebook promotes Portal as “private by design.” In October 2018, Facebook executives told Vox.com that data collected by the devices would not be used to target advertising.

This claim turned out to be false and was corrected by Facebook in another Vox interview the following week.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, Calif., does not collect the content of calls and messages made via Portal devices.

However, according to the company’s “Supplemental Portal Data Policy,” Facebook will collect, use and share data about Portal’s call information, camera usage, voice commands and third-party apps in accordance with its primary data policy. 

“It could be argued that the NHS are the ones responsible for the recording and … sharing (of) data with Facebook, which is quite simply illegal without consent.”

Alexander Hanff, Think Privacy

This means Facebook and its partners may use this information to target users with ads as they browse the web.

Alexander Hanff, CEO and co-founder of Swedish consultancy Think Privacy, told Digital Privacy News that Facebook and the NHS might lack a valid legal basis for distributing Portal devices in care homes.

Hanff also questioned whether Portal devices met the requirements around confidentiality of communications under the U.K.’s Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR).

“It could be argued that the NHS are the ones responsible for the recording (of care-home residents’ data) and are sharing the data with Facebook, which is quite simply illegal without consent,” Hanff said.

He fears that NHS may not have carried out due diligence before distributing Facebook’s hardware, such as conducting a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), which may be required under U.K. law. 

In the news release announcing the donation, NHS claimed that care homes would be given advice on “data protection, including how to complete a factory reset before passing the device to a new user” in order to “help protect the personal data of different users and staff.”

Robert Bateman is a writer based in the U.K.

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