Is the Metaverse a 'Global Panopticon'?

In an excerpt from her new book "Beyond Data," lawyer Elizabeth M. Renieris argues emerging extended-reality technologies erode individual and societal privacy rights.

AccessTimeIconJul 14, 2023 at 6:14 p.m. UTC
Updated Jul 14, 2023 at 6:46 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJul 14, 2023 at 6:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Jul 14, 2023 at 6:46 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJul 14, 2023 at 6:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Jul 14, 2023 at 6:46 p.m. UTC

Without question, new and advanced technologies such as emotion detection and affect recognition technologies, neurotechnologies, and XR and other metaversal technologies, among others, raise significant privacy-related concerns. Each new category of technology penetrates a layer deeper into our personal space, threatening to erode the boundaries of our inner lives and inner selves.

This article was excerpted from "Beyond Data: Reclaiming Human Rights at the Dawn of the Metaverse," by Elizabeth M. Renieris.

Moreover, the rendering and datafication of these activities into digital information raises traditional and novel data protection concerns, despite the inadequacies of existing laws that pertain to personal data and frequently require the identifiability of individuals. And whereas conventional legal frameworks typically regard privacy as an individualistic concern, new and emerging technologies increasingly have implications for individuals, groups and society as a whole too.

Extended reality (XR) technologies are a clear example of the simultaneously personal and collective nature of these privacy concerns. In order to fuse virtual and physical or “real-world” components together, XR technologies typically involve the collection and use of biometric identifiers and measurements, real-time location tracking and “always-on” audio and video recording technologies that create detailed, live maps and models of spaces or places and record ambient sounds.

From the perspective of an individual using the technology, XR devices tend to capture information about the individual’s voice or vocal tone, iris, pupil movements and gaze, gait and other body movements, location information, device information and identifiers, and more, raising obvious concerns about the privacy and security of data harvested about that individual.

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These technologies are, by definition, designed to alter or extend reality.
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These practices also raise concerns about the personal privacy and security of individuals insofar as these technologies can be used to track and surveil them.

Apart from the privacy risks to an individual using these technologies, such as by wearing an XR headset or glasses, they introduce significant risks to nonusers and other people who may be implicated through interactions with that individual in both the virtual and physical worlds. For example, “always-on” recording devices and cameras are likely to capture the images, movements, voice, conversations and other sounds of unknowing and unwitting bystanders.

Where combined with advanced biometric identification systems, such as facial or voice recognition technologies, they might also locate and specifically identify individuals in the surrounding area without their knowledge or consent, and in turn, without any opportunity to opt out.

At present, there are few laws or regulations that account for these scenarios. As a result, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautions, we could end up in a “global panopticon society of constant surveillance in public or semi- public spaces.” XR technologies illustrate the contextual and interpersonal nature of our privacy challenges too, and the need for a more collective approach in a postdigital world.

But the concerns with respect to metaversal technologies such as XR run much deeper than what we traditionally conceive of as privacy challenges. These technologies are, by definition, designed to alter or extend reality. As such, they are inherently powerful tools for manipulation and discrimination.

Depending on the reality individuals are exposed to, they might be persuaded, manipulated or coerced into choices, behaviors or activities against their own best interests, and often unknowingly. While this phenomenon already exists in the digital media and information landscape, such as with respect to algorithmic systems for personalization and behavioral targeting, XR and similar technologies could further amplify and exacerbate the so-called filter bubble effect.

Moreover, individuals who exist in the same physical space may experience different versions of “reality,” depending on their gender, race, socioeconomic status and other protected or sensitive attributes (and, potentially, depending on their ability to pay for the latest or best XR technologies).

In these ways, such technologies pose a direct threat to the values of personal autonomy, human dignity, choice, consent and self- determination – values that often underlie concerns about privacy and are central to functioning democratic societies.

Elizabeth M. Renieris is a law and policy expert focused on data governance and the human rights implications of new and emerging technologies. She is the founder and CEO of the HACKYLAWYER consultancy, a senior research associate at Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and affiliate at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Her new book "Beyond Data" was published by MIT Press.

Edited by Daniel Kuhn.


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