Uncharted metaverse ushers in a new era for privacy concerns

Surveillance State

IRVINE, Calif. (NewsNation) — The metaverse is a futuristic new frontier, and an estimated 64 million Americans will venture in through virtual reality by the end of 2022. However, many describe the metaverse as “the wild west” for privacy and it can lead to personal data issues in this reality. 

The metaverse is often described as an immersive internet and the virtual reality boom is underway in gaming, fitness, education and commerce.

“You know it’s just gonna be another version of humanity doing interesting things with technology — good and bad,” said Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “It’s a ‘wild west’ right now, and so the question is, how’s it gonna be regulated? How responsible are companies gonna be?”

According to research by the University of California, Berkeley, companies have already gleaned a lot of data from people in the metaverse.

“What VR fundamentally is, what the metaverse is at its core, is a stream of data about yourself going out to the world,” said Vivek Nair, a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Nair and a team of Berkeley researchers confirmed that by developing what seems like a harmless game.

“In making my way through a series of virtual rooms, a stunning amount of personal data is being revealed through my every move, reaction and response.” 

Developers can also determine the dimensions of the room you’re actually in in real life and even the type of computer you’re using. 

Meanwhile, security experts warn that anyone who puts on this gear to enter the metaverse is immediately exposed to a whole new world of potential adversaries.”

“If I’m an adversary, I can use that picture I have about you to understand your age, your gender, your location, all your demographics, and maybe even pinpoint exactly who you are,” Nair explained.

Students at Santa Clara University’s Imaginarium lab are developing VR programs, well aware that targeted advertising is driven by data collection. Most who venture into the metaverse often agree to terms without a second thought. 

“Even if it is in the terms of service because it’s so long, a lot of us just skim right through it,” said Trisha Nguyen, a Santa Clara University student.

Various metaverse communities are growing fast, with new users joining daily.

“The Pandora’s box has been opened and it’s a great adventure, but you have to be a little cautious,” said Anthony Lupo, chairman of ArentFox Schiff law firm.

There are no established laws or signs of law enforcement, but many virtual law offices are setting up shops and finding new clients. 

“We have to figure out how to navigate this Wild West to figure out who to go after,” Lupo said. “Say you’ve got a decision against somebody, you don’t even know who that person is; they could be in North Korea for all you know. Good luck getting that enforced.”

Heider explained: “We assume the metaverse is just, oh we can just jump in there and understand it and get the culture and sell lots of products, but we wouldn’t do that moving to another country, right? And so in a way, VR is another country.”

As a first line of protection, Berkeley researchers are developing MetaGuard, a tool that allows users to go incognito. 

“There’s just enough randomness added to the process so that an adversary can’t make precise enough measurements to say exactly who you are,” Nair said.

Since the metaverse is in its infancy, guardrails and security tools are still in development but coming. 

“If we reach that point, then we’ll be in a very similar situation to the web where there are still risks but they’re manageable and the benefits outweigh them,” Nair said.

Meta refused an interview request but responded with links to blog posts outlining its safety tools and features. 

It’s estimated that by 2026, one in four people will spend at least an hour in the metaverse every day.

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