They call it masking tape for a reason.
In 2016, an infamous video chat session with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg revealed how the famous founder had a piece of tape over his webcam.
Countless conspiracy theories later, including the one that Facebook listens to our conversations and shows relevant ads, and we finally have a new product from the social media platform that dispenses with the need for tape altogether.
The Portal 2.0 is a new display that’s similar to Amazon Echo Show or the Google Home Hub in that you can ask about the weather, hold a video chat with friends, or play music. The new product recently started shipping. It supports Amazon Alexa and sports a 10-inch display. However, the most interesting feature is a small privacy tab that seems wholly unnecessary and a nod to privacy advocates everywhere.
First, it’s unnecessary because it might not actually do anything.
Security experts will likely chime in on this one eventually, but let’s say you are worried about Facebook listening to you. The first thing to be suspicious about is a large switch that turns red when you use it. The theory is that it closes the shutter on the camera and disables the microphone. Most likely that is actually the case, but if you doubt whether Facebook is playing fair, a switch is not the ultimate precaution against intrusions. It’s possibly the most obvious ploy. If I was creating a product that listened to people, I’d also make a switch like that. Brilliant.
And, let’s be clear about this: Facebook is all about public perception. The feature seems to say: Look, we have a privacy tab, we care about you our users. We aren’t listening to you we promise! Most devices like this do not have a privacy switch, even if it’s a simple option in Windows and on a Mac to disable the webcam in apps like Skype or Zoom.
The basic summary here is:
If Facebook really is listening, a switch won’t matter at least for the microphone.
If Facebook isn’t listening, the switch is pure and unadulterated marketing.
The truth is somewhere in the mix. Privacy is a major concern for all of us, but not because a social media giant is nefariously tapping into their own product in order to show you ads and also not because masking tape is a useful deterrent.
It might be a much deeper issue.
Here’s what is more likely. A major corporation decided to make a prominent privacy switch on their new product. (A previous version used a simple plastic cap.) Social media users are inundated all day with disparaging remarks and insults. The vast majority are everyday folks sharing pictures of a trip to Cancun and posting about their political views and maybe a meme or two. A small minority probably live in a bunker somewhere and might try to tap into your connected display.
What the privacy switch reveals is the state of social media. An unregulated open forum where anyone and everyone is free to throw punches, deploy marketing bots, troll you incessantly, and generally cause havoc.
In the end, maybe the privacy switch makes perfect sense. Welcome to the age of semi-useful features that are meant to sway public opinion.