Facebook plans to install Portals in thousands of UK care homes

The NHS is in talks with Facebook to arrange for the distribution of thousands of the company’s Portal devices to care homes across the country, according to sources familiar with the matter.

As British care homes put an end to visits from friends and family to stave off the spread of coronavirus, there are worries that residents will suffer from loneliness at a time already marred by gloom and distress. That is why the NHS is planning to deploy Portal, a device Facebook launched in 2018 to facilitate video chat via its Messenger and WhatsApp apps, to help care home residents stay in touch with their loved ones throughout the lockdown.

Facebook was among the technology companies summoned to Downing Street in mid-March for a meeting chaired by government advisor Dominic Cummings and Matthew Gould, CEO of NHS England’s digital innovation branch NHSX, during which companies were asked to cooperate with the UK government in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, according to the sources, the NHS is about to launch a pilot in which 2,000 Portal devices will be handed to care homes in Surrey and in a still-to-be-decided northern city – possibly Leeds, Manchester, or Newcastle. Following the pilot, the sources say, the scheme might be rolled out across England, and could involve the allocation of up to 100,000 Portal devices – which according to the source the NHS would receive at a lower price, and with prioritised access. As of November 2017, according to a report by the Competition and Markets Authority, there were 11,300 care homes in the UK, housing about 410,000 residents.

The NHS declined to comment; Facebook declined to comment for the story, but disputed the 100,000 figure. WIRED understands that the government has been asking care homes – most of which are privately-run – to partake in the pilot, and that an official announcement will be made later this week.

CHD Living, a Surrey-based care home group, had already been independently experimenting with Facebook Portals to remotely connect residents with children and adults who don’t have grandparents, when the NHS proposed it to join the Portal pilot in Surrey.

“We are aware of Facebook donating 2,000 portals to the NHS in order to facilitate communication between people living in care homes and their loved ones,” CHD Living’s spokesperson says. “We have been contacted by the project managers of this campaign and they have offered access to these Portals as part of a trial.” The spokesperson adds that the NHS also asked for “consultation” on how to best deploy the devices in a care home setting.

“CHD Living is supporting the campaign by helping to partner the NHS with other Surrey care providers. They do not want to take away valuable resources from others who will benefit, but are partaking in the trial using the technology that they have already purchased,” the spokesperson says. Most of CHD Living’s care homes have fibre broadband allowing for smoother video-calling, but the sources say that poor internet connectivity in some care homes might be an issue, which the NHS is liaising with telecom companies to address. The care homes partaking in the initial pilots will be chosen among those that can already rely on good connectivity.

Portal devices have been roundly praised for the quality of their video-chat, with automatic zooming and people-tracking software allowing for smoother conversations even with several participants in the same room. “This is a very positive initiative,” says Daisy Cooney, health and care policy manager at the charity Age UK. “We know that there are many relatives and loved ones of people in care homes who are unable to speak and see one another. It is hard to imagine quite how difficult this must be.”

On the other hand, concerns have been raised in light of Facebook’s chequered track-record on users’ privacy, compounded by Portal’s potential for information-guzzling – with one CNET reviewer going as far as advising against buying the device solely on the grounds that she did not trust Facebook.

Stephanie Hare, a researcher and broadcaster working on a book on technology ethics, says that the coronavirus crisis will push governments to settle for “less than ideal” solutions. “We may need to use what we have and minimise the risks,” Hare says. “Essentially, if there’s a need for a service, we must ask ourselves: if not Facebook, or any other big tech company, then who?”

“The question is whether we can pressure these firms to walk the walk on technology ethics. That means transparency, fairness, accountability, consent, privacy by design.”

Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior research officer at Privacy International, underlines that transparency is “the key to every partnership” between the NHS and any company. “It’s normal that everyone, including Facebook, is willing to participate in this ‘war’ effort, but we must be aware of what the price of what Facebook is offering is,” Blum-Dumontet says.

“We need to understand what is going to happen with the data from the conversations, with their metadata, whether Facebook will have access to that, and whether they will be encrypted,” she adds. “We must make sure that FB ensure that transparency.”

Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi

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