While the rollout of Facebook metaverse plans and its shockingly rapid escalation may come as exciting news to you, have you ever stopped to consider the consequences that this type of permanent virtual existence could have for your data privacy? Do you care – more importantly, should you care? Yes, you should. And here’s why.
Since Facebook first announced its name change to Meta in an effort to pursue its vision for the metaverse, companies all around the world have begun announcing their own virtual reality (VR) plans – from Nike’s Nikeland to Microsoft’s Microsoft Mesh (and so many more). While businesses and individuals around the world have been quick to adapt to the idea of the metaverse, these plans are also being greeted with growing concerns around data privacy. Given Facebook’s track record to date with data protection (or lack thereof), there are valid reasons to have privacy concerns about the company’s future plans for the metaverse. But before we dive into data privacy issues, let’s explore the term ‘metaverse’ and what it really means.
The announcement of the metaverse has been met with equal parts excitement and suspicion as we all sit back and wonder what the age of the metaverse will mean for data privacy.
What is the Metaverse?
The metaverse is a broad and complex term that can encompass a whole slew of concepts, industries, organizations, devices, and activities. But to put things simply, just replace the word “metaverse” with “cyberspace,” and 90% of the time, the meaning won’t change. This is because the metaverse is an all-encompassing term for different technologies and how we interact with them. It focuses on a persistent virtual world that combines the digital with the physical. This also includes a digital economy, where users can create, buy, and sell goods – including virtual land!
It’s important to note that there isn’t one technology, software or company that defines or has claim over the metaverse. That would be like saying the internet is made up of one website. Collectively, many technologies, organizations and aspects will come together as the building blocks of the metaverse, just like websites, networks and thousands of other aspects make up the internet.
To a certain extent, gamers already engage in this type of reality through virtual multi-player games such as Roblox or World of Warcraft. Like these games, the metaverse represents an opportunity for you to operate a digital avatar that represents you in real life rather than as a player in a game.
The metaverse may very well change the way we work, do business, socialize, shop and live our everyday lives.
How will the Metaverse Affect Data Privacy?
We already know the dangers of data privacy when it comes to social media and really, anything involving the internet or our technological devices. Now add the tracking power of virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) technology, and things may get much worse. These new technologies are designed to collect data at an unreasonably granular level—from our eye movements to our emotions and more.
One of the main privacy concerns surrounding the metaverse is that this kind of virtual reality setup could work as a “supercharged Alexa-style virtual assistant in terms of potential for violations.” Your new headset or AR glasses may very well work as a camera and microphone inside of your home. More advanced VR and AR technologies can even begin to track, collect, store, and analyze data about heart and respiration rates and other physical movements and attributes to create individual identification and tracking. This leaves us wondering not only what kinds of data privacy issues we could start encountering, but how intrusive they might actually be.
In a world where everything we say, do and feel can be tracked, how can we become un-trackable?
Since everything’s still on the table when it comes to the metaverse and data protection law – coupled with the inconsistency of data privacy laws across countries, states and provinces – it’s hard to outline how deeply the metaverse will affect our data privacy. But for now, if you’re hesitant to buy into the whole being-tracked-all-day-every-day thing, try these tried-and-true methods of keeping your data private on the platforms and devices you use most.
By making a few simple changes to your devices and accounts, you can achieve basic security against unwanted attempts to access your data. The best part is that getting started is easy.
Here’s a guide to the few simple changes you can make to protect yourself and your information online.
1. Secure your accounts
We all know the drill when it comes to password hygiene, but we’ll repeat it again. Use strong, complex passwords or passphrases for your accounts. Don’t use chronological numbers (1234) or phrases that contain any personal information about you (name, dog’s name, birth date, address etc.). And don’t use the same password across different accounts! A second option is to turn on two-factor or multi-factor authentication for your important accounts. 2FA and MFA mean that instead of using just a username and password, a security system verifies your identity by requiring multiple credentials.
2. Secure your web browsing
Try browsing in incognito or private mode. If you don’t want your computer to save your browsing history, internet files, or cookies, do your web surfing in private mode. Note that different web browsers offer their own versions/names of this form of privacy protection. In Chrome, for example, it’s called Incognito Mode while Firefox calls its setting Private Browsing. While this type of browsing does have certain benefits, it’s far from the only tool available to help you maintain full privacy online. Anonymous search engines and virtual private networks can bump your online privacy to the next level.
3. Secure your mobile devices
Our mobile phones know a lot about us. Your phone knows exactly where you are right now. Our phones are our primary sources for surfing the web, answering emails, watching videos, and nearly everything else regarding our daily lives. This makes it extremely important to put as much effort into protecting your online mobile privacy as your desktop privacy. There are a few ways you can start:
- Don’t ignore software updates.
These updates include important protections against the latest viruses. If you ignore them for too long, you could be leaving your smartphone’s operating system and programs vulnerable to attack.
- De-clutter your apps.
Apps can learn a lot about you due to the different types of data they can access via your phone. Even seemingly harmless apps like a flashlight app could potentially be selling the data they gather from you. That’s why we recommend sifting through your smartphone and deleting all the apps you don’t need or use.
- Stick to browsers.
When it comes to privacy, browsers are preferable to apps because they don’t have access to as much of your information as an app can.
- Turn off ad personalization.
Whenever possible, go into your settings and turn off ad personalization, which gives companies permission to track you and your online behaviour. You can do this for Google and Android, as well as for social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Turn off location tracking.
Your phone’s default is to follow your everyday movements and routine. It keeps track of where you are and how long you stay there. It even knows where you live and work based on how long you’re there and the number of times you go. If you’re uncomfortable with this, navigate to your phone’s privacy settings and shut this off.
How to turn off ad personalization/tracking on iOS and Android: iOS:
iOS: Settings >> Privacy >> Advertising >> Toggle “Limit Ad Tracking” to On.
Android: Settings >> Google >> Ads >> Toggle “Opt out of ads personalization” to On.
Depending on your situation or the level of security you want to attain, you might want to take additional precautions to safeguard your privacy and security. With plans for the metaverse well underway, it will become all the more important for you to stay proactive about your data protection. At the end of the day though, it could be difficult to fully protect your privacy online if there aren’t sufficient laws to protect your privacy online. This is where we’re forced to sit back and watch as this new world begins to unfold around us – whether we want it or not.
Despite all of the unknown, we believe it’s still important to remain vigilant about your data and the information you’re sharing – whether voluntarily or unknowingly. In such an unprecedented virtual landscape, the best we can do is stay alert and make an effort to learn about and execute the actions we can take to protect our online data today and in the future.