By now, you’ve probably heard the term metaverse or the fact that Facebook is rebranding itself to Meta. Metaverse is the hot new buzzword that companies will continue to latch onto. If you are unfamiliar with the metaverse concept, The Verge had a recent article about it called, What Is The Metaverse and Do I have to Care?
I’m not going to retread what the metaverse is in this post, nor will I talk about distributed metaverse projects on the various blockchains. Most average users find blockchain technology too hard to use and certainly don’t own any NFTs. I’ll revisit this when the average user can set up a wallet without losing their recovery passphrase. Facebook has the users, the name, and the integration, so it makes sense to start here.
This post is a quick note about the dangers of a future-state, connected metaverse concept, and integrated tech such as VR and AR. Why would a company like Facebook be so interested in this concept? Let’s have a look.
It amazes me how people believe that these large platforms have their best interests in mind. Yes, this social network with a billion daily users that I pay no money for was built for me to share pictures of my dinner with the world. People are either ignorant or ignore the tradeoffs. Facebook has over 10,000 employees working on VR technology. I’m sure so you can share pictures of your dinner in augmented reality. So, if we apply the same concept of a large social network’s metaverse, then we have to assume they are monetizing their users and their data.
Completely immersive virtual reality has been a tech holy grail since the 1800s and the stereoscope. Given that large tech companies are footing the bill, you can bet that the monetization strategy involves you and your data.
Picture yourself going about your day performing activities from the most mundane to the most sensitive. Now, picture someone watching and hearing what you do. If you think that’s scary, it gets worse. All the things we don’t recognize can say the most about who we are. What exactly did you look at? Did your eyes spend a little bit too much time on that advertisement or that person? Did your heart rate rise? Are your activities conducive to a healthy lifestyle, or do they raise the risk of illness?
Micro Scale Surveillance
Now, think about all of the things you don’t tell people and what those insights hold because this is what you disclose to the platform. No matter how mundane you think your activities are, they are interesting to somebody. The connected metaverse offers micro-scale surveillance with access to seemingly innocuous signals on the surface but enriched with other signals. This data is valuable for advertising, insurance, governments, and the list goes on and on—access to this information is provided via payment or force.
There’s no doubt that Facebook knows a lot about you already, too much. Not all of that knowledge is direct; some of it is inferred knowledge. So, it may not be something the platform knows outright but based on other signals, it can infer. The metaverse will flip this around, providing direct access to connected devices.
What will make the metaverse dangerous from a privacy perspective is deep integration with devices, extended engagement and the monetization of the platform. You combine signals from multiple devices and centralize them on a platform giving direct access for analysis and enrichment.
Your first question may be, why would anyone connect all their devices to their account in the first place? Well, many people already do, but the longer answer is because of some perceived benefit. People already connect their refrigerators to the Internet. Maybe the more devices you attach, the platform promises a better experience. It could also be for gamification reasons, like competing against friends and racking up some points or virtual street cred. Maybe you attach your smart refrigerator to the metaverse to show off how many salads you have in it. But, in the virtual salad game, you lose points for your kid’s birthday cake, the unintended consequences of poor design. The reality is, the scenarios are endless.
To simplify this, let’s think of the data generated by a set of AR glasses with an always-on microphone and video feed, location services, and a fitness tracker. There’s a massive trove of information here. The camera on the glasses has access to everything in front of your face and tracks where your eyes focus. The microphone hears your voice and ambient sounds, and the location services provide your location via GPS. The fitness tracker has access to your heart rate, 02 levels, movement, and exercise routines.
For years, websites and ad agencies have tried to maximize their investments by using tech to determine how long you stay on the page and what part of the web page you spend the most time on. Eye-tracking brings this to a whole new level of accuracy.
With eye-tracking and augmented reality, the tech will know not just in the virtual world but in the real world what you look at and focus on. Since we make conscious and subconscious movements with our eyes, we may not realize the type of preferences we disclose. Which ads do you find the most appealing? Do you prefer men or women? What attire do you like? Another endless and terrifying list.
Look forward to an onslaught of unblockable ads overlaid on your world, all based on subconscious preferences you may not have even known you had. Maybe the ad changes the brunette to a blonde or the skin tone of a person in its attempt to tailor a more attractive ad. This scenario is both a privacy and social risk.
Your fitness tracker says a lot about you. The obvious thing it says is how mobile or sedentary you are. Your workout routines, number of steps you take, heart rate, all of this is valuable data. You might say, “Well, that’s what the fitness tracker is supposed to do.” Correct, but in the connected metaverse concept, you provide direct access and centralization of that data. This access and centralization allow the platform to enrich it with other signals.
Signals from a fitness tracker combined with other data such as eye-tracking and location services enrich the data to new heights. For example, when looking at a person, does your heart rate increase? That’s much more valuable (and sensitive) than just knowing when your heart rate increases.
Much has been written about the risks of location data, everything from identifying secret military bases to priests being outed for their use of dating apps. I won’t retread the dangers of location services since much has been written about it already.
In the connected metaverse scenario we’ve discussed, location data is enriched with other data to provide deeper insights than just the location alone. Where you are is combined with what you look at, your reaction, and how often.
Data Leakage and Ownership
If one sure thing in the world, it’s that data will leak. The impact from leakage of a dataset built with more complete data will be worse for individuals.
It’s not just the primary platforms like Meta. It’s also 3rd party developers writing apps to run on the platform. They may also have access to the same signals and may have more nefarious intentions or just worse security practices. Issues with 3rd party applications have been an issue for as long as social networks have allowed them.
Of course, data ownership is still an issue. Who owns the data? Probably not you, even after you exit the platform. Even if the platform deletes the raw data about you, the insights gained and your profile will persist.
If you think about the world today, there is a non-negligible number of people who’d prefer to be uploaded into their own personal utopia. Their avatar represents what they feel they are and what they want the world to see. They’d rather hashtag their way to activism than take meaningful steps to make a difference. One of the greatest cons perpetrated by social networks is convincing people that activism requires no action, even though the word “act” is literally spelled out. “Look, I changed my profile photo in solidarity” or “I posted thoughts and prayers on someone’s timeline,” shouting “look at what a great person I am” into the echo chamber. One thing is for sure, the metaverse will fill with more hollow and pointless gestures that have no effect on the real world, and that’s a problem.
The more you focus on the virtual world, the less you focus on the real world. We observed this lesson with immersive video games. The real world has immediate problems. No hard problem is ever easy to talk about or solve, and we’ve found unique ways of avoiding them.
Life is tough for many people, especially during a pandemic, so I can’t fault people for wanting an alternative, but this is kind of how you get dystopias. Food for thought, the sci-fi stories of the past that have had metaverse-like concepts have been dystopias.
Real-world experiences are valuable for health, well-being, and personal growth. No virtual experience can even come close, period. Recently, I was in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva. The sun was setting, and I watched the sailboats coming in. The sun behind the clouds showed through with an orange color. I thought it was cool, so I snapped a picture.
I can tell you, the picture did not do the experience justice, not just because of my poor photo-taking skills or lack of horizontal orientation (I never meant to share the photo). Everything from the breeze on my face to the ambient sounds of birds in the background created an experience that no picture or video could recreate.
It wasn’t just about the sensations I experienced sitting on the shores of the lake. It was about personal reflection. I spent my time watching the sun go down on a park bench without staring at my phone or any other busy activity. I took time to reflect. The experience was restorative in a way I couldn’t have gotten in any virtual context.
Engagement and Immersion
Facebook’s major goals are engagement and time on the platform. The more time you spend on Facebook engaging with people (positive or negative) the better for them financially. This metric means that Facebook will do its best to create more immersive experiences and allow apps that align with this goal.
The more immersive an experience, the less time for reflection. Think about playing a video game; it’s an activity that keeps you busy with constant activities but doesn’t allow for personal reflection. This is dangerous because being more reflective in our thinking is how we avoid scams and disinformation.
The fact that social networks are an activity, like a game, could be a factor that helps misinformation spread more rapidly. When you are liking, commenting, and arguing, you aren’t spending time reflecting. You are leading with emotions and personal biases, the same things that adversaries exploit. We will see new attacks since increased engagement opens the door to enhanced manipulation, whether by advertising or adversaries.
Ultra-customization amplifies your biases. Your opinions will be shaped by the content you see, meaning you could be further isolated from reality. Many people will also choose not to participate. Your view of the world will be shaped by the content you choose to see or the platform chooses to show you for increase engagement.
The world created will be filled with the intentional and unintentional. In the previous section, I mentioned that ads might change based on your subconscious preferences. This feature means your private utopia may lack diversity by design.
The metaverse isn’t going to lift people out of poverty, change the environment, or make the world more equitable. It may, however, con people into feeling as though they are making a difference. Same social media, different wrapper.
This post only scratched the surface of the risks involved, and as I was writing this, I thought of even more. We’ll see more of these issues come to light in the future. I hope that conversations about the risks force these platforms to enforce data and privacy standards. Only time will tell.