George Orwell has nothing on us.
Although his classic dystopian novel 1984 foreshadowed the surveillance networks used by governments around the world, he could not have predicted the ubiquitous corporate surveillance of our every digital move. Every website we visit, every message we send, every file we download is tracked and recorded.
If virtual reality (VR) is going to be the computing platform of the future, we need to take a good, hard look at how this surveillance affects us today — and the implications for tomorrow.
These days, even with top-notch privacy software it is nearly impossible not to give away personal information to companies on a daily basis. As our lives become more and more digital, this trend will only continue. We use their products and in exchange we give up a little of ourselves.
This simple exchange is a cornerstone of the Internet. Since its early days, the classic startup business model was build a website, gain users, and then sell ad-space. It was inevitable that these websites would begin using user information to create better advertisements. Marketers have always wanted more, better data and, with the Internet, they had access to it in droves. Nowadays, user data is often the most valuable asset of large tech companies, their crown jewel, as they try to connect advertisers with potential customers.
Of course, this exchange has tremendously benefited Internet users. By relying on advertising as a revenue model rather than subscriptions or pay-per-use, thousands of Internet services are free today. From web search to email to weather to news, we don’t have to pay a dime. Instead we give up our basic information when we sign up and allow trackers to monitor us as we surf across the web.
Although privacy advocates have warned for years about the potential for abuse, so far user data has mostly been used to help companies advertise products we might actually want. Sure, Google and Facebook know what food sites I visit, but in the end the only result is more ads for delicious Mexican restaurants.
Data-tracking in VR
The situation radically changed with the advent of virtual reality. A VR headset acts as a simple gaze-tracking system, allowing companies that collect user information to see where users are looking at all times. This information can be used to find out which advertisements catch a user’s eye and which do not. With the development of sophisticated motion tracking hardware for the arms, torso and legs, companies will get a complete picture of a user’s actions any time they are logged in.
Most VR aficionados are already well aware of this risk. When Facebook bought Oculus, message boards were flooded with developers fearing that Facebook would fill the emerging virtual metaverse with advertisements. Although it seems unlikely that Facebook would force advertising on a product that is easy to monetize in other ways (indeed, Palmer Luckey already promised they wouldn’t), the focus on advertising misses the larger issue: Big Brother, or rather Big Data, can watch everything we do while wearing a VR headset.
It all comes down to the “Chilling Effect” of surveillance. Basically, when people know they are being watched, it has an adverse effect on the way they interact with each other and the world around them. Although we may have come to grips with companies using algorithms to parse our messages for advertising information, virtual reality takes it a step further by allowing companies to know our every movement within their 3D digital worlds.
If people feel like they are constantly being observed and tracked, they will feel less free to express themselves honestly and openly. Virtual reality has the potential to be the ultimate form of human expression where users can be who they want to be, act how they want to act, and create what they want to create. Data tracking could kill that dream before we have a chance to make it a reality.
So what are we to do? Early VR consumers need to be diligent about the kind of products we use and companies we endorse. Although some information will probably be tracked and stored by every company, we need to ensure that user agreements respect the rights of the individual. There is a reasonable amount of tracking and information gathering that can provide benefits to end users while still maintaining their right to privacy.
Companies need to be forthright about the kind of data they collect and how they store it. Nowadays, collecting basic user information upon signing up is standard practice for most companies. Still, companies must closely guard this information and its connection to individual avatars unless the user gives explicit permission for it to be shared.
Tracking of user movements and actions should be limited in scope and focused on improving the application. Anonymous data in aggregate can be incredibly useful for understanding what users like and don’t like about a VR experience. Developers can use this information to ensure that the company is iterating in the right direction.
Individual user data is a little more complicated. Companies can learn a tremendous amount about an individual from their digital trail. This can be used to drive engagement and improve an individual user experience, but can also be abused. Every company must ensure that user data is encrypted and protected so that only key pieces are available for analysis.
Free services will most likely continue to sell user information to subsidize their costs, but that shouldn’t mean they have full-reign over the data they do collect. Users should know who has access to their data and should have some say in the type of data that is released. Overall, the most important lesson of the past 20 years for both free and paid applications is that companies need to be explicit about how their user data is used and who profits from it.
As a community, we should develop best practices for tracking and information storage in virtual reality before it’s too late. Only by staying vigilant against abuses of our personal information can we prevent the emerging virtual universe from becoming the stuff of dystopian science fiction.