What Is the Metaverse — What Are Its Privacy Implications?
We all know that Facebook (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been speaking about a ‘metaverse’ for a couple of years now. So, it didn’t come as a surprise when he announced that Facebook is being rebranded as Meta—complete with a brand-new logo.
The name change and rebranding very boldly represent Facebook’s long-term goal of leveling up the internet by introducing a 3D universe using artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies—think Ready Player One.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? We agree! But where we’re all anticipating another long leap into the future, security experts are holding their tongues to their cheeks about what this significant step signifies.
Facebook (Now Meta) has been under fire for security concerns regarding user’s personal information and unnecessary tracking too many times to count. CEO Zuckerberg has also been pulled into court hearings to clear the company’s stance on numerous occasions, making the company’s disregard for growing privacy concerns almost second nature.
According to two different experts, Meta will have more access to your data than Facebook ever did. Imagine having even your eye movements tracked, right down to the items in a shopped your eyes lingered on for a micro-second too long, or your breathing changed the minute you saw something that caught your eyes.
Meta will know what your favorite virtual locations are for visiting, what time you like visiting them, what items you look for when shopping, and what kinds of virtual activities you like doing with your friends. If Facebook can show you ads for something you’ve been meaning to buy, before you even search for it, imagine what Meta can do with the amount of information it will have access to.
Mark Skwarek, an associate professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, recently reported to Yahoo Finance that “if you’re doing an augmented experience or a virtual experience, you could be collecting data on that user constantly. You’ll be able to predict what people think.” Having said that, it seems that Zuckerberg has already taken into account the security concerns, acknowledging that it is important to build the Metaverse for “privacy, safety, and inclusion” and hinting that there will be full transparency regarding what data the Metaverse collects and uses it for. Further explaining the matter, Zuckerberg also admitted that he is working with outside experts for the company on privacy and security matters, however, it looks like no matter what the experts say, Zuckerberg still holds the final deciding power.
In a virtual conference introducing the design of the Metaverse, Zuckerberg said that “Interoperability, open standards, privacy, and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one, and with all the novel technologies that are being developed, everyone who’s building for the metaverse should be focused on building responsibly from the beginning.” Even though Zuckerberg may have addressed the public concerns upfront, Facebook’s history might make trust a little bit more difficult.
The Metaverse will present a setting where users will be able to connect and communicate across different layers of reality. Things like attending virtual concerts with friends or going to a virtual school will become the norm.
The tour of Zuckerberg’s concept of a new high-tech fantasy world starkly contrasts with the issues Facebook has already been facing in the real one. Leaked files known as Facebook papers make it clear that Facebook is aware of the extent of damage it has caused, and not just security concerns. Instagram has been linked to being intensifying body-image issues in teens and young adults, while Facebook has been under fire for spreading misinformation and ideological extremism.
The unflattering press has been so unforgiving that the sudden buzz around “Meta” and the metaverse almost feel like a well-timed pivot from ‘bad light’—signaling a much deeper strategy. A strategy that would perhaps let Zuckerberg dissolve Facebook’s privacy and security issues as the company is almost ‘reborn’ as the all-new Meta.
However, even with grandiose ideas, Meta still has a long way to go to show stakeholders it’s a commitment to the promises made, compared to which the current developments seem to be little more than a surface scratch. Even Zuckerberg doesn’t expect the Metaverse to embody the entirety of what it’s designed to become for the next 5 to 10 years.
But even if this dragon grows up to become everything it was really intended to be, a quick modern history lesson will let us that data security and user privacy might not be among the top 5 options on its priority list. But hey, there’s always hope.