VR/AR

Protection, privacy and policing the metaverse

29th March 2022
Beatrice O'Flaherty

With so much excitement and traction around the metaverse, questions have begun to arise regarding data exchanges and safeguarding.

Many will be familiar with ‘accept all’, the button we often click before reading through the endless terms and conditions as we rush to enter webpages. Privacy policies seem purposefully obscure, most people don’t even understand the customisable ‘cookie settings’ that they are offered. We willingly hand over our data – an intangible and seemingly harmless notion.

As your browser tracks your every click, you may start to notice tailored adverts that mirror the last online shop you viewed. You ask google a question and suddenly every scroll on social media attempts to answer it.

You misguidedly tick all the boxes as you complete your e-purchase, the next day you are bombarded with emails from the third-party companies that you inadvertently signed your soul away to.

Considering the eery repercussions already entangled with your digital footprint, what potential does this create for a metaversal presence?

Virtual boundaries

A report by Norton Rose Fulbright heeded the dangers of the metaverse as its “revolutionary nature is likely to give rise to a range of legal and regulatory issues.”

The ease at which organisations will likely be able to collect users’ data is alarming. If work, school and meetings begin to take place in the metaverse, people will be ‘logged in’ for longer periods of time.

Not only will the extent of observation be forever changed, but also the modes by which social patterns are observed. With the use of VR headsets – which are likely to evolve into more sophisticated equipment, such as direct electronic and brain interfaces – the creators and developers of the metaverse may be able to track brainwaves. Individuals’ physiological responses and movements will help third parties to gauge a more thorough analysis of behaviours.

3D advertising

From a capitalist perspective, this opens an entirely new world of marketing exploitation. The report posits a metaverse in which a hungry user repeatedly glances at a café. This would be detected either through AI or regulators, who can then adapt the virtual reality around the user to sell or serve food accordingly.

Other forms of targeted marketing through data collection may include deals and discounts being updated in real-time for everyone’s perception of the metaverse. The report notes that is “likely to constitute direct marketing under many countries’ data protection laws.”

Data protection laws will require ongoing scrutiny and regulation. Under current GDPR there different laws. Some acknowledge a single ‘controller’ as the entity that determines both the purposes and means of processing personal data. Other see ‘processors’ who process data on behalf of others.

Regulations and rules

For the metaverse to be fair, examination of such laws must establish which entities will have responsibility for data. Further to this, independent bodies will surely be necessary for regulating and policing the metaverse.

Professor Reid, Professor of AI and Spatial Computing at Liverpool Hope University, expressed his concerns over exiting mixed reality (MR) protypes: “Most have sophisticated cameras. Some even incorporate Electroencephalogram (EEG) technology in order to pick up brainwave patterns.

“In other words, everything you say, manipulate, look at, or even think about can be monitored in MR. The data this will generate will be vast… and extremely valuable.”

Not only should we worry about how our data is used by businesses and organisations, but also the opportunities that the metaverse unlocks for criminals. With the ability to hide behind avatars, essentially fraudulent identities, users have the potential to exploit illegal means like never before.

The UK government has prioritised proactive prevention of criminal and illicit content online, as opposed to previous reactive approaches that saw tech firms removing such content after it was uploaded. Such content includes drugs and weapons dealing, people smuggling, revenge porn, fraud, promotion of suicide and inciting or controlling prostitution gain.

With a plethora of unanswered queries surrounding the metaverse and its privacy protection, we eagerly await more information on how to protect yourself, your information and your possessions in a virtual world that many are still struggling to wrap their heads around.

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