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Virtual Reality (VR) and Privacy

Since 2016, numerous companies have tried to push virtual reality (VR) to enter the mass consumer market. In September 2020, Facebook announced Oculus Quest 2 that adopted a low-price strategy. There were speculations that Facebook sold Quest 2 below the cost. Estimates suggest Facebook has already sold 5 million as of today. 

As the number of users grows, the issue of privacy becomes increasingly important. When Facebook announced Quest 2, it also announced Quest 2 required a Facebook account. This sparked numerous discussions, as many people distrust Facebook due to privacy concerns. One of the critical issues is that VR headsets often include multiple cameras. These cameras handle environment diagnostics, joystick control, and hand identification. It’s a remarkable and convenient technology that made standalone VR headsets work smoothly. However, it may also expose information about your home environment and biometric data.

As stated in the Oculus Privacy Policy, they collect information about your environment, physical movements, and dimensions when using an XR device.

What does this imply? Why should it be a source of concern for you?

According to current VR technology, they could collect physical movement biometric data like:

  • Eye Tracking: Fixations and gaze points are the key outputs of eye tracking. It helps to show one’s interests. Using the attributes from gaze patterns create the possibility to approximate a person’s identity, such as age and gender. With additional sensors, they may collect your pupil dilation. Doing this can also predict a couple of other things like; mental and emotional state, health conditions, and sexual orientation.  
  • Body Movement: As a gauge of body pose and motion, VR tracking data is a rich source of information. There have been correlations between various body motions and creativity, learning, and other behavioral outcomes. Thus, this data can correctly identify around 95% of users. Since Facebook has your account to use Quest 2, Facebook may know you better than you do yourself after analyzing this data.

As with many other privacy concerns, the question is whether the benefits to the user outweigh the risks. What can we do about this?

Unfortunately, nothing much we can do at the moment. Virtual reality is a relatively new technology. The majority of virtual reality companies and users are indifferent to, or unable to care about the privacy issue. However, as virtual reality adoption increased, we began to see an emergence of research on VR privacy and organizations concerned about it, such as the XR Safety Initiative.

In spite of that, we can:

  • Carefully go over all of the privacy options they provided. Ensure your information will not be made public.
  • Constantly inquire about how virtual reality companies use and protect your data. When everyone keeps asking these companies questions, they have no choice but to pay attention.
  • Finally, continue to advocate your government to enact legislation in support of it. It is the most effective and vital method of safeguarding your virtual reality privacy.

Virtual reality is a captivating technology. We hope that it continues to improve and provide us with a better experience. On the other hand, it is also important to keep it mind that when the virtual reality market grows but don’t take privacy seriously, it may create higher risk that exposes our privacy.

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