Tech Champion: Christian Ivanov
In 1992, Neal Stephenson defined the metaverse as a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection. Today, the metaverse is a concept, which aims to determine the general digital transformation in every aspect of our physical lives.
The concept captures a mix of virtual reality and other technologies. It is a world of interconnected physical and virtual communities where users can develop professionally socialise, entertain, commerce and even trade with virtual properties. All of this is accessible from any place in the world, using different types of smart devices, such as virtual reality (VR) headsets, smart bracelets, smartphone apps, etc. Metaverse platforms are the next evolution of connectivity where the features and functionality of each individual application and device are coming together in one place.
There is no unified view about how exactly the metaverse platforms look like and how they will continue to grow. Major companies are already developing their own versions and each of them is adapting the idea of metaverse to their strengths. Examples are the leading social media platforms, gaming companies, online shops etc. Some brands are also claiming virtual real estate in the metaverse platforms with their own digital properties.
One can perceive metaverse as a digital version of our reality (representing cities, buildings, streets, individuals etc). At the same time, the idea has also grown to building elements that do not exist in reality, such as virtual events and digital venues. Notwithstanding the way this will develop further, the metaverse aims to steer the direction of the world’s evolution as it might completely transform the way individuals, communities, governments and corporations interact. Considering the vast quantities of personal data that may be collected on participating individuals, the metaverse platforms pose significant privacy-related challenges.
Positive foreseen impacts on data protection:
- Difficulties in demonstrating positive impacts: Since the metaverse is a concept under development and the design and configuration of the technology is still not specified, at this stage direct positive impacts cannot be demonstrated with concrete figures. Eventual privacy enhancing features could be implemented in the metaverse to obtain an enhanced level of privacy.
- Anonymity in some processes: Depending on a particular case, certain metaverse platforms could allow individuals to create avatars with entirely fictional characters that do not resemble the physical appearance or include any related information with the real person; or to create any other elements and objects relating to them having features different from the corresponding objects in reality, insofar as this might be considered fair and without negative implications for others. This could be used to enhance anonymity towards the other users/vendors within the entire interacting process in the platform.
Negative foreseen impacts on data protection
- Deeper profiling: Profiling hides risks in each social media platform. However, compared to traditional social media, metaverse platforms can collect, store, and rely on more personal data than ever before in order to examine users’ behaviour. This gives possibilities to the metaverse providers to classify people in precise profiles, even considering new categories of data.
- Constant monitoring: The metaverse makes technologies closer to every aspect of our physical lives, leading to constant observation of every aspects of it. This is connected to a constant privacy invasion, which becomes the normality. The usage of expanded amount of devices allows tracking through multiple channels, like wearable devices, motion sensors, microphones, heart and respiratory monitors, etc. This allows the surveillance of users’ interactions to an even higher extent than traditional applications.
- Interference of special categories of data: The metaverse platforms allows for the monitoring of special categories of personal data like physiological responses, emotions and biometric data, such as a person’s gait; facial expressions; eye movements; vocal inflections; and vital signs in real time. Considering the direct statements and actions in the platform (ex. visiting a special place in the platform), other special categories of data can also be easily reviewed, such as political beliefs, sexual orientation etc. Processing sensitive data and targeting users based on them creates high risks for the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals.
Our three picks of suggested readings:
- M. O'Brian, K. Chan, EXPLAINER: What is the metaverse and how will it work?, 2021.
- L. Lee, T. Braud, P. Zhou, L. Wang, D. Xu, Z. Lin, A. Kumar, C. Bermejo, P. Hui, All One Needs to Know about Metaverse: A Complete Survey on Technological Singularity, Virtual Ecosystem, and Research Agenda, 2021.
- Y. Wang, Z. Su, N. Zhang, D. Liu, R. Xing, T. Luan, X. Shen, A Survey on Metaverse: Fundamentals, Security, and Privacy, 2022.
EDPS related works:
- Technology Report no. 1, Smart glasses and data protection, January 2019.
- TechDispatch #1/2021, Facial emotion recognition, May 2021.