The Metaverse can be described as a 3D virtual space where users can engage in social interactions as well as interact with their virtual environment using advanced human-computer interface (HCI) technology. If data privacy is an issue in today’s 2D and Web 2.0 world, the Internet, as embodied in the metaverse, makes things more difficult.
Given the many privacy issues associated with most of the tech companies pushing the Metaverse, it’s only natural that people look at the Metaverse from the sidelines. But the metaverse’s privacy concerns go beyond the rocky history of the companies that support them. Along with concerns about how personal data will be collected and used, there are also concerns about how the metaverse could provide an escape from reality.
One aspect to consider as part of privacy when designing the metaverse is to remove biases that would lead to non-inclusive or harmful adaptations of the real world. Satisfying the need to create robust ecosystems within the technologies developed for the metaverse is a key consideration. These trusted ecosystems will be the building of algorithms, structures, frameworks, rules, and policies across hardware and software development cycles to address the individual elements of security, privacy, and protection in the technology’s DNA. To ensure privacy, more careful consideration needs to be given to the way data is exchanged in virtual worlds.
Therefore, the policies under which data in the virtual world is collected, stored, accessed and used (or, depending on the interoperability of the digital world in the virtual world) are critical in determining the extent to which such data may be misused. The first step in protecting data and privacy in the Metaverse is to build privacy-sensitive technology from the ground up. All of this will go a long way towards creating a secure, privacy-sensitive and regulated metaverse for users. Both developers and businesses need to carefully consider and protect privacy in the Metaverse, and they must bake-in privacy by design into these technologies.
From comprehensive tracking and data collection to aggressive ads that continue to follow you even after you log out, the future of privacy in the virtual world is all but certain. Camila Serrano, head of security at MediaPeanut, warned that the metaverse could lead to a world without privacy. Allan Buxton, director of forensics at Secure Data Recovery Services, added that if Metaverse were implemented the way Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta envisioned, there would be no privacy.1
However, the most problematic issue for Facebook/Meta and any other major players investing in the development of the metaverse is privacy. Data protection and privacy should be the top concerns for companies, developers, and users of the metaverse. Companies that ignore data protection and privacy rights in the metaverse could quickly lose the trust of users and also face huge long-term fines, such as Facebook’s current $5 billion fine.
The creation and functionality of the metaverse certainly depends on new types of potentially sensitive information, such as biometric data. We can expect companies in the metaverse to collect personal information for individual identification, advertising, and tracking across multiple channels such as wearables, microphones, heart and breathing monitors, and user interaction on a scale we’ve never seen before. But it also means there will be many independent metaverse developers, companies and creators collecting user data.
So I think there will be pressure from all sides to make sure the metaverse is safe. I hope we’ll start to see more data hygiene rules as the metaverse starts to evolve. As frustrating as it sounds, further exploration of the problems that the Metaverse can bring is the only way to make sure the Metaverse doesn’t become a privacy nightmare. We will definitely need policies and regulations that prioritize user transparency and the control and protection of users from potential exploitation.
Just as consumer data provides the raw material for personalized experiences in the digital world, so it will be in the metaverse, where information about everything from a user’s location and demographics to their online behavior and characteristics of friends can inform how brands sell. In the metaverse, marketers will be able to tell how someone accesses it— through VR headsets, AR glasses, or Brain-computer Interface (BCI), but personal thought patterns must be protected.
Of course, not only people, but also things will be virtualized in the metaverse. Buildings, items in the house, items in the store will be digitally represented through a virtual entity in the metaverse.
The infrastructure that makes the metaverse accessible— virtual reality wearables, augmented/mixed reality software— will be heavily powered by massive datasets that will reveal how users interact with their surroundings in imaginary worlds, workspaces, doctor appointments, etc.
Finally, circling back to the privacy issue. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told The Associated Press in November that Metaverse’s Facebook version of parent company Metaverse will be addictive and collect even more personal information, granting the company even more of a monopoly when it comes to our online lives2. Not to mention Facebook is still struggling with privacy issues, and so it is highly likely that this issue will result in Meta and Metaverse being just as privacy-deficient as Facebook.
The virtual world is one of the hottest areas in tech right now, but doubts remain about how to handle privacy, an increasingly important value to most users, in the growing space. Lack of technical knowledge about immersive technologies (AR/VR/XR/MR) historically slow political regulation, and consumer skepticism continues to create an uphill battle for developers and marketers. Data privacy concerns are growing in the Metaverse as it evolves with new hardware, software and other technologies capable of collecting vast amounts of personal data. Privacy has to be taken seriously.
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