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Virtual Reality

Here's How Privacy is Threatened by AR/VR

The digital information that one puts online today is practically impossible to be erased from the internet
Here's How Privacy is Threatened by AR/VR
Image credit: Shutterstock
5 min read

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In today’s world, nearly everyone is surrounded by increasingly compelling virtual technologies, such as high-definition displays (for instance television monitors), sound systems, virtual cameras, multimedia communication devices which combine voice, video, text, etc. Though it is true that these devices ostensibly improve one’s standard of living, there is also a steep and deep downside to ever-increasing digital-media capabilities with possible complications to privacy and identity of the individual.

Years ago, if an individual wanted to disappear, he would have been able to do it much easily and by numerous ways- changing identity, travelling to a place where no person would recognize him and so on. However, the digital information that one put online today is practically impossible to be erased from the internet. Though people may have some control over access to their digital information (for example, who can see their photographs on Facebook), they cannot control what other people do with this information. Virtual reality exacerbates this threat to altogether new levels and its use can lead to an unravelling of individual identities and consequent violation of privacy rights of the individuals. Digital footprints left by the individuals while using VR/AR raise serious Orwellian concerns when it comes to using such footprints to identify who people are and what they plan to do, as we shall discuss later in this article.

What are Digital Footprints?

The concept of ‘footprint’ emanates from a much ancient investigative methodology of re-tracing the actions of the criminal by identifying his movements- i.e. moving backwards to form a series of connected actions leading to the perpetrator. Today, forensic scientists use footprints to track down criminals. For instance, by examining length and width of the physical footprint, they can estimate a person’s height and by examining depth, the estimated weight of the individual. Looking at the impression of the sole of a shoe, forensic experts can learn much about the person who left them.

In a similar way, people also leave traces in virtual reality. In fact, every action one takes in a virtual world leaves a set of detailed and predictive footprints, thereby creating archives of individual movements and social interactions which can help draw conclusions about others’ emotions, personality, age, etc. A digital footprint can vary across anything and everything that you do on the internet, including comments placed by you on social media, web history of your browser, skype calls, email records etc.

Threats Posed - Invasion of Privacy in Virtual Reality

It is not just the amount of data accumulated, but the objectivity of that data that makes virtual reality really unique. In a typical investigation, a detective forms an impression about a suspect and brings his/her own biases and preconceived notions relating to him which h/she later tries to verify. However, the analysis of virtual-world data can be completely unbiased. It records every behaviour and looks for patterns via brute force. What makes such analysis superior is that machine learning algorithms can start with an unbiased “blank slate” each time. Research indicates that virtual reality can provide diagnostic methods that are more accurate and cost-effective and reveal much about physical and psychological identity. Actions that may seem trivial in a virtual world, such as choosing to walk or run, how quickly one types or how a person responds to the virtual environment, provide insightful clues about the identity of the individual. The impact of digital footprints left behind by such technologies is so vast that a particular field of psychology-termed as cyberpsychology has been devised to study this phenomenon.

Apart from privacy concerns, increasing use of virtual reality also raise concerns relating to cyberbullying and cyber-stalking. The age-group particularly vulnerable to these kinds of crimes include teenagers and adolescents and can have a remarkable impact on their social compass. Digital footprints left behind in VR/AR can be used by hackers to extort money out of victims, or worse, forge duplicate identities with malafide intentions.

Predicting Identity and Behaviours

Though digital footprints can be created from virtual reality, online games, and social networking sites, it is also possible to predict identity and behaviour from digital video. Since Darwin, scholars have analyzed the ways in which the face portrays emotion, though the past few decades have seen this work accelerate.

Computer vision–based tracking systems can automatically quantify even the smallest nuances of facial movements. Such facial expressions often predict ensuing behaviours—for example, blink rate, a proxy for fatigue that can prove to be instrumental in predicting the behaviour and identity of the individual. Clearly, the idea of using tracking data to predict behaviour is not new. Psychologists have been mining language databases in recent years which can predict a lot about a person—whether they are depressed, experiencing trauma, or even considering suicide.

It, therefore, becomes important to be aware of the extent to which VR can be used for criminal purposes and limit the possible misuse by taking certain precautions.

What Can be Done?

While it is not possible to have zero digital footprints, there are techniques which can help reduce them while using virtual reality. Some techniques include-

  • Conducting background research before establishing connection with online identities of other individuals (for example- online dating).

  • Keeping digital identities private unless necessary to be shared with others.

  • Reporting fake/misleading identities as soon as possible, etc.

In sum, virtual reality provides footprints that can reveal who a person is, what they plan on doing, and whether they will succeed. While users in online worlds believe they are totally anonymous, nothing could be further from the truth. A virtual footprint tells us much about identity. Unlike with physical footprints left in the sand, there are no waves to wash away digital ones. Thus, keeping yourself vigilant and safe is a much better way of using VR/AR technologies.

Virtual Reality Is Already Changing How We Work and Communicate