Facebook gifts 2,000 Portals to NHS to tackle pandemic loneliness

By Robert Scammell

Facebook is providing up to 2,050 of its Portal video-calling devices to NHS hospitals and care homes in the UK to tackle the isolation felt by residents and patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

Announced this morning by the Department of Health and Social Care, the plan is part of the NHS’ technology unit – NHSX – push to work with technology firms during the crisis.

The UK has been in lockdown since 23 March, with social distancing measure meaning many vulnerable patients and care home residents have not been able to see relatives. It is hoped the devices will help ease feelings of loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic.

50 Portal devices have already been piloted in Surrey. Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas will follow, with digital transformation consultancy Accenture providing assistance.

NHS services will be able to keep the devices free of charge after the pilot phase concludes.

Free Portals will also be offered to in-patient learning disability and autism units. The initiative will also see the devices used to help health and care workers work remotely where possible and to enable more virtual appointments.

The confirmation comes after Wired reported on Monday that the social media giant had been in talks with the health service about providing the devices.

NHSX digital transformation director Iain O’Neil said:

“Technology companies big and small continue to pledge their resources and expertise to support our NHS and social care system in these unprecedented times.

“We are working hard to find and develop services that meet people’s equally unprecedented needs. Technology has never been so important to providing one of life’s most essential things – the ability to communicate with the people we love regardless of where they are.”

Freddy Abnousi, MD, head of Health Technology, Facebook said:

“We designed Portal to give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones. With the global pandemic and social distancing measures, the ability to stay connected is more important than ever.

“That’s why we are piloting a programme with NHSX to provide Portal devices in hospitals and other care settings to support patients and help reduce social isolation.”

Weighing up Portal privacy concerns

Facebook released Portal in 2018, but the social media giant’s poor privacy track record and competition with rival devices by Google and Amazon resulted in struggling sales.

However, Facebook says that it does not listen to any conversations made using Portals and that user data is encrypted.

Security experts told Verdict that Facebook’s chequered privacy record should be weighed up by the convenience and benefits that Portals offer during the pandemic.

“These devices provide the perfect convenience and virtual contact opportunities for patients in isolation, which is wonderful, but we must remain vigilant that they also collect and share information,” said Jake Moore, cybersecurity specialist at internet security firm ESET.

“Facebook states it does not track video or audio content on the Portal device to target ads, however, it does collect data from users for ad-targeting purposes on the rest of its platforms such as Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp.”

He added that Facebook Portal allows the use of third-party apps, which may not meet the same privacy or security standards.

“In reviews, the Facebook Portal has been found to be easy for even elderly people with no experiences of phones or tablets to be used,” said independent security expert and co-host of the Smashing Security podcast Graham Cluley, who has purchased a Portal for his parents-in-law.

“Facebook says that it does not listen to, view or keep the contents of any video or audio calls sent via Portals. There is also a hardware cover for the camera and a switch to turn off the microphone. It’s understandable that many are extremely nervous of using any Facebook product – given their less-than-perfect track record – but the Portal at the moment doesn’t appear to have suffered any security issues.”

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