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Privacy and the metaverse: is there space for safety in a virtual world?

December 2021
 by George Slade

Privacy and the metaverse: is there space for safety in a virtual world?

December 2021
 By George Slade

In a month when a number of high-profile scandals rocked Facebook, the social media giant announced it was changing the name of its parent company to Meta – a nod to the metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and many other prominent figures in the tech industry believe will become the next generation of the internet.

The metaverse is currently still a concept, although the technology is being developed to create it. It is envisioned to be a virtual, digital world in which the user can be fully immersed, engaging in as broad a range of activities as the real world offers: socialising, education, gaming, shopping, and working. It will be a three-dimensional version of our two-dimensional internet, enabled by emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Although Meta’s announcement was largely met with ambivalence from the general public, in this year alone the company is investing $10 billion in VR and AR technologies. But with a slew of other tech giants, from Microsoft to Disney, announcing similar aspirations in recent weeks, critics are raising concerns about privacy in this brave new virtual world.

A metaverse of data

The metaverse pushes already murky issues surrounding privacy and data into uncharted territory, as the scale and types of data generated by the metaverse will be unprecedented. Current methods of measuring our clicks, searches, and time on conventional websites paints an unreliable picture of us, especially because people can share devices and accounts. The metaverse, though, could collect information on an individual’s body movements, eye movements, fingerprints and facial shape. Even on shared devices and shared accounts, the metaverse could know exactly who is using it, and where, at a specific time. The myriad pieces of information that make each of us unique could be quantified into accessible data. It could even map out the interior of a building from movements and interactions – so even if some members of a household are not part of the metaverse, they would still be indirectly affected.

There are implications for hackers to be in a very advantageous position if the metaverse’s defences are not secure enough. If it is to be used as a one-stop shop for people’s online needs, it will undoubtedly become a target for ransomware. Hackers could potentially be able to use biometric data collected on fingerprints, eyes, and faces to hack into bank and other accounts. Capturing faces and body movements could also make deepfake production more realistic, whilst footage of metaverse interactions could be used for blackmail in certain situations. Security needs to be the number one priority of this venture, otherwise very detailed personal information could fall into the wrong hands.

With data comes great responsibility

However, it’s not just rogue cyber-criminals that critics fear could abuse the enormous amount of data that the metaverse might harvest. Even putting past scandals like Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of Facebook data to influence elections out of our minds, Mr Zuckerberg’s announcement came at time when the company was embroiled in a particularly damaging scandal. With a whistle-blower testifying before UK Parliament and the US Congress about Facebook’s knowing disregard for misinformation and disinformation, and the damaging mental health effects of the platform, confidence in the company is low. If Facebook cannot be trusted to take down dangerous content, can it be trusted with our biometric data and the intimate details of our home and work lives? In the hands of an authoritarian government, this data could be potentially lethal, and even in liberal democracies many people would be understandably uncomfortable with private companies having access to their most personal details.

It’s likely that it will be at least a decade before these aspirations become a reality, so there is time to ensure they are developed in a responsible way. Meta has stated that it has set aside $50 million for ensuring products are developed responsibly, and it intends to work with human and civil rights communities to ensure that they are “built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering”. Nevertheless, critics remain unconvinced, and it’s clear that careful regulation will be needed to ensure that this technology is implemented and used safely, and with regard for the privacy of the individuals who will use it.

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