January 15, 2022 Editor

Surveillance will follow us into ‘the metaverse,’ and our bodies could be its new data source

Virtual reality headsets learn more about you than traditional screens. That could be good news for creepy companies.

By Tatum Hunter

January 13, 2022

image above: (iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

WN: The privacy encroachments are not unlike the proverbial frog in the water slowly boiling to death. It’s all ever more ominous.


Buzz around shared, 3-D virtual spaces that companies including Meta are pitching as the “metaverse” may only get louder from here. This year’s CES was spattered with companies billing themselves as metaverse tech, with ideas ranging from virtual customer service representatives to a food-delivery robot controlled by real people watching from a perch in virtual reality. All are angling for space in an emerging industry spearheaded by tech giants, including Meta and Microsoft, both of which announced their own metaverse products in the past few months. Even Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates weighed in, saying he expects the metaverse to be part of our workplaces in the next three years.

But virtual reality (VR) headsets can collect more data about us than traditional screens, which gives companies more opportunities to take and share that data for profiling and advertising. They could also give employers more ways to monitor our behavior and even our minds. There’s little stopping the government from getting its hands on body-related data from VR tech, and there’s little in place to protect us and our kidsfrom unrestricted data gathering and psychological manipulation, say digital rights advocates and experts following the industry.

Digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Extended Reality Safety Initiative, a nonprofit developing standards and advising lawmakers on safety in VR, have raised the alarm on the privacy threats Big Tech is posing with its vision for a metaverse — not just for employees, but for people and their children at home.

“In some respects, a 3-D headset is not really any different than a 3-D monitor,” said Jon Callas, director of technology projects at EFF. “But then there are other things being done that could be extraordinarily intrusive.”

With almost no limits on what data employers can gather about employees on the job, companies could also use eye-tracking and facial movements to determine whether we’re “paying enough attention” during virtual presentations at work, or even to try to measure our cognitive load during job interviews, Kavya Pearlman, CEO of Extended Reality Safety Initiative, said.

Microsoft, which is making its own virtual reality software, would not say whether it currently uses the tech to collect or share data from our bodies and whether it plans to do so in the future.

“At Microsoft, we believe data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people and organizations to achieve more,” Vasu Jakkal, corporate vice president of security, compliance and identity, said. “We’re deeply committed to the privacy of every person who uses our products.”

Theoretical or not, VR headsets could provide a frightening pathway to biometric information previously inaccessible to companies, employers, law enforcement and the government, Pearlman and Callas said. And that includes any inferences drawn from that information, they noted. VR companies and their advertising partners could use the way we move our eyes, heads and arms to infer things about our personalities, health and habits, and use that information to market to us.

“We believe it’s important that the metaverse is built safely. Data classification is a key element of that but it’s early days for understanding new types of data that may be generated by AR/VR across the industry,” Meta’s Morea said. She declined to comment further on the exchange between Bosworth and Pearlman.

Until the federal government steps in to regulate Meta more strictly, people should be wary of the company’s plans for Meta-controlled virtual reality, Callas said.

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.