We deserve TV-based video chats that we can trust

Not long ago, the first generation of smart TVs began shipping with built-in cameras.

The idea seemed obvious at the time — if video calling on a computer is good, doing it on the biggest screen in the house should be even better. Some manufacturers even went so far as to add gesture-based control to the cameras, which meant there was a reason to keep those cameras active all of the time.

But it soon became apparent that having a camera on your TV represented a potential privacy and security nightmare. Several stories were written about how these devices could be hijacked, and it was eventually revealed that the National Security Association (NSA) had been able to use a Samsung smart TV’s camera and microphones to spy on people it was investigating.

Not surprisingly, initial enthusiasm for built-in cameras quickly faded, and as of just a year ago, it was almost impossible to find a smart TV with a camera.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Within a few weeks, millions of lives had been altered, and video calling went from novelty to necessity overnight, making Zoom a household name in a flash.

As video calling morphed from a business tool to a cultural phenomenon, our reticence over having webcams constantly pointed at us seems to have ebbed substantially.

The surest sign of this change can be seen in the sales of devices that have been built specifically with video calling in mind: Facebook Portal, Google Nest Hub Max, and Amazon’s Echo Show.

While demand for all kinds of electronics has increased due to the pandemic, Facebook’s Portal has been on a tear. In May, the wait time was up to 90 days for the 10-inch model, and the TV-mounted version was completely out of stock, Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware told a reporter from Protocol.

NPD Group, which tracks consumer behavior, noted a big uptick in the demand for USB webcams — up more than 200% from one year ago,

Perhaps in response to this demand, this week Google announced its intention to add Google Duo, the company’s person-to-person video and voice calling service, to Android TV as a beta feature. This makes Android TV the first of the stand-alone streaming media platforms I’ve encountered to integrate video calling — even Amazon has yet to offer this on its Fire TV devices. Folks who want to try the Duo beta will need an Android TV-powered smart TV with a built-in camera, or an Android TV set-top box and a compatible USB webcam, and a Google account.

Cameras, cameras everywhere

All of this raises several questions: Are we now ready for cameras in the living room, bedroom, or anywhere else we have a TV? Do we trust the companies that are selling these devices? And, now that Google has officially pledged support for this feature on its streaming media platform, who’s next?

If demand for Facebook’s Portal devices wasn’t evidence enough of our newfound comfort with cameras, consider that sales of security cameras — which are used inside the home as well as outside — have also seen a huge increase. It’s fair to say many of us have gotten over whatever latent queasiness we may have had at the idea that our lives are now being lived on-camera.

We’re not just getting more comfortable with video calling appliances — we appear to be getting cozier with smart assistant devices in general, with adoption rates of voice-powered gadgets like smartphones, smartwatches, and smart speakers at an all-time high.

Facebook Portal+ review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Underpinning this rapid adoption is trust in the companies that make and sell them. In 2019, a survey of more than 9,300 respondents revealed that Amazon was the most trusted company in the smart devices market, and Samsung (yep, the same company that had one of its TVs hacked by the NSA) was right behind it in second place.

This is remarkable because it was in 2019 that Ring, the smart doorbell company owned by Amazon, was found to have been hacked on several occasions due to security holes in its products (and the occasional user error).

A more recent 2020 survey found that people were more comfortable sharing their private data with Microsoft than with Apple even though experts argue Microsoft’s data gathering practices in Windows 10 is far more invasive than what Apple does within MacOS.

Perhaps it’s this question of trust that has Amazon, Apple, and Roku waiting in the wings before following Google on stage with TV-based video calling services of their own.

Maybe no one wants to be the next target of an FBI security warning.

So yes, there are still very good reasons to be wary of how well these organizations are protecting your privacy and your data. But there’s an even better reason for them to put in the necessary safeguards to assure us: There’s still no end in sight for this pandemic, and more and different pandemics are likely to feature in our not-so-distant future.

It’s high time that video calling left the confines of our laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and got the big-screen experience that only a TV can deliver. It’s time for tech companies to make it happen and make it safe.

We deserve it.

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