For those who are unaware, the term “metaverse” was invented by sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. Simply expressed, the metaverse is envisioned as a hybrid of online and offline experiences in other virtual worlds where people would connect and exchange.

While many people are delighted about the metaverse’s enormous technical possibilities, others are concerned about the possible expenses we will have to pay for the privilege.

One of these possible drawbacks might be our privacy. As the online and real worlds intersect, we should expect to face new problems and threats brought by the metaverse’s broad acceptance. From all-encompassing surveillance and data collecting to invasive adverts that follow you even after you disconnect, the metaverse’s future of privacy is all but guaranteed. Keeping this in mind, what are the possible privacy implications of broad metaverse adoption?

What Exactly Is the Metaverse?

The term “metaverse” refers to both existing and future integrated digital systems focusing on virtual and augmented reality. It is frequently heralded as the internet’s next frontier, with substantial economic and financial implications for the IT industry and other industries.

The phrase “metaverse” is a combination of the words “meta” and “universe.” It is mostly used to refer to a predicted future generation of the internet known as Web 3.0. The growth of online 3-D or virtually integrated settings that give users with access to virtual reality and augmented reality experiences is predicted as the internet continues to evolve.

Devices such as virtual reality headsets, digital glasses, smartphones, and other devices, according to the vision for the metaverse articulated by social media and technology companies, will allow users access to 3-D virtual or augmented reality environments where they can work, connect with friends, conduct business, visit remote locations, and access educational opportunities, all in an environment mediated by technology in new and immersive ways.

The metaverse is not limited to a single form of experience. Instead, it refers to a series of immersive digital experiences that will be available to users in the future, allowing them to engage in a variety of diverse activities in entirely digital environments. Participating in a gigantic virtual reality multiplayer game accessed via a VR headset, or experiencing integrated digital and physical locations such as location-specific immersive digital material from business users visiting via digital glasses or smartphones, might be examples of this.

The metaverse is thus not a single digital world, but a collection of digital spaces and experiences that are now being developed by firms in order to provide more realistic and immersive digital experiences. The technology offers a wide range of possible applications, ranging from augmented reality collaboration platforms that might improve cooperation and integration to work productivity systems for remote teams that could allow real estate agents to organize virtual house tours, for example.

Some parts of the metaverse are now implemented into existing internet-enabled video games like Second Life, Minecraft, and Fortnite. These games provide rich social and virtual experiences with a persistent virtual environment in which users from all over the world can participate at the same time. While not associated with virtual reality, the metaverse will provide additional opportunities for this sort of virtual reality experience.

When Will the Metaverse Be Accessible?

Cloud infrastructure, software tools, platforms, apps, user-generated content, and hardware will all be driving forces in the metaverse. Aside from the technological needs, the metaverse will contain a variety of user experiences such as entertainment, gaming, commerce, social interactions, education, and research. The issue then becomes, how long will it take for humanity to go from numerous protometaverses to the grand metaverse?

Mark Zuckerberg believes it will be before the end of the decade, but it might happen much sooner because the core parts are already in place. The infrastructure that underpins today’s internet enables enormous crowds to congregate in virtual spaces, such as when more than 12.3 million Fortnite players tuned in for a VR concert featuring Travis Scott. Although the present infrastructure is amazing, it will most certainly need to expand further in order to support the metaverse industry experts anticipate.

We also have the hardware to produce 3D virtual surroundings and avatars that are lifelike. Oculus VR, the main manufacturer of virtual reality headsets, is owned by Meta. Since its first release in 2016, Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality smart glasses have supported a variety of corporate application cases. Furthermore, Apple is expected to offer AR and VR headsets in 2022. HTC, Pico, Magic Leap, and other manufacturers are quickly developing new hardware platforms, while cascade technology topologies transfer diverse computing tasks from back-end server infrastructures to edge devices.

Unity’s Furioos is a classic example of streaming fully interactive real-time 3D worlds, with their automatically growing GPU server architecture handling the hard lifting of rendering the scenes. The metaverse will be a ubiquitous computing experience in which users will be able to utilize traditional computing devices such as laptops and mobile devices while simultaneously augmenting the experience with developing immersive AR and VR wearables.

Finally, the same cutting-edge technologies that have been reshaping the financial services sector since the Bitcoin network’s inception in January 2009 can be utilized to ensure data continuity in the metaverse. Nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, are a great illustration of how blockchain technology can be used to validate the ownership of digital assets, and there are already 3D virtual reality platforms that employ them.

Marc Petit, EPIC Games’ vice president and general manager of Unreal Engine, recently remarked in an interview that the metaverse will necessitate “shared virtual environments that feature permanence.” This means that, for the best customer experience, a user should be able to transport their digital belongings from universe to universe. For example, a user’s NFT shoes purchased from Nike in the future will be available for avatar usage on Meta’s Horizon platform as well as other virtual worlds such as those found in Fortnite and Minecraft.

Another example is Decentraland, which is a completely decentralized planet with no central authority. The world is built on the Ethereum blockchain and run by a decentralized autonomous organization. Players may control the policies that govern how the world acts by organizing and voting. Decentraland also has its own decentralized currency, MANA, which can be swapped for other currencies on cryptocurrency exchanges. In the future, Decentraland might be one of several decentralized worlds that make up a section of the metaverse, with digital assets and currencies flowing between them in the same way that individuals living in different nations interchange fiat money and actual products in the real world.

While no one will own the metaverse—just as no one owns the internet today—there will undoubtedly be many important players in the space, and companies such as Meta, Microsoft, Unity, Epic Games, Roblox, and others want to be among them, which is why they are pouring billions of dollars into making the sci-fi dream a reality.

Virtual worlds with no privacy?

The internet, in its current form, is based on data collecting, which some opponents compare to mass monitoring. Researchers and technology businesses are beginning to ask if the metaverse will be any different. According to Kavya Pearlman, founder of the XR Safety Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for the ethical development of immersive technologies, the infrastructure underpinning the metaverse—virtual-reality glasses and augmented-reality software, for starters—will rely on reams of data showing how users interact with their surroundings in fictional worlds, digital workplaces, virtual doctors’ appointments, and elsewhere.

“At any one time, the way you walk, your stride, the way you gaze, your pupil dilation is sending developers information,” she explained.

All of these details might provide businesses a better understanding of their customers’ characteristics. Ms. Pearlman stated, contradicting conventional concepts of privacy and security and putting company rules to the test in order to defend them. For example, she stated that an insurance company may receive information indicating that a user has a health concern before the user notices any physical changes or visits a doctor.

“The data is now in assumptions,” Ms. Pearlman explained.

However, as things now stand, privacy risks in the metaverse are no different than they are on the Internet and social media, according to Stel Valavanis, creator of onShore Security.

“However, as with virtual environments, it’s all too easy to let our guard down and fail to see that these are rather public locations, and we can’t rely on the system to keep us private or safe,” he claims. “The danger rests in the fact that the metaverse is fairly new, or rather non-ubiquitous enough that it is novel to most.”

Valavanis, on the other hand, does not believe the metaverse will lead to a world without privacy. “We’ve already corroded so much, and that’s a cultural shift as well as a sluggish reaction to change. I don’t see a way to alter this except through regulation and perhaps market forces to impose greater privacy, better defaults, and even some actual accountability for abusers,” he added.

Consider this fact in the midst of the endless possibilities of what may come.
Imagine how susceptible we would be in 3D if our privacy is already under attack on the two-dimensional internet.?

“It’s going to exacerbate the existent privacy concerns that we’re not currently dealing with very effectively,” says Caglar Yildirim, an assistant teaching professor and the director of Northeastern’s Mixed Reality research group. “And then we’ll have to deal with the more serious implications of failing to pay attention to those concerns.”

It’s bad enough that cookies track our internet travels now; in the future, virtual reality headgear may capture our sensitive health data.

How are financial transactions going to be handled? How can we prevent being duped into buying a digital facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge if we’re buying virtual real estate?

“This is things we’ve been writing about since the 1990s, like, what if your avatar rapes my avatar?” says Brooke Foucault Welles, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern. “Those concerns have not been handled, and I have no doubt that they will occur.” Moving into that place without even thinking about it feels risky right now.”

According to Welles, one reason for hope is that people are far more conscious of privacy problems today than they were in the 1990s, when the internet first became a commercial network.

“Why not create a privacy-first metaverse?” Welles explains. “If we can create it, what would a privacy-preserving metaverse look like?” Welles sees a wide range of safe venues in the metaverse where individuals may experiment with diverse bodies, gay adolescents can experiment with different methods of coming out, and identities of all types can be honored without fear.

Creating trust-based ecosystems

Addressing the importance of building trusted ecosystems within metaverse technology is a vital concern. These trusted ecosystems will include the incorporation of algorithms, structures, frameworks, rules, and policies into hardware and software development cycles in order to handle the different components of safety, privacy, and security inside the technology’s DNA.

To maintain privacy, how data is exchanged within virtual worlds will need to be more carefully studied. The elimination of biases that will lead to a non-inclusive or malevolent adaptation of the actual world is a second dimension to be examined within the privacy issues of the metaverse’s development. Participating in the metaverse will include the use of integrative new technologies. This necessitates a global rigorous open-box security validation procedure of the environments’ protection against breaches of confidentiality, integrity, or other aspects of security.

These trust ecosystems will help to the creation of a stable, inclusive, and meaningful virtual and immersive existence.

How may these dangers manifest themselves in the metaverse?

To comprehend how safety issues may become increasingly widespread in the metaverse, a vital concept of this digital future should be shared: “At the heart of the metaverse concept is the notion that virtual, three-dimensional settings that are accessible and interactive in real time will become the transforming medium for human involvement.” These settings will be dependent on widespread acceptance of extended reality if they are to become feasible.”

Even if not a totally immersed life, many individuals are expected to spend more time merging offline and virtual interactions, progressing towards a mixed reality (MR). Breach of privacy and security are channels that can jeopardize the safety of interactions and users. For example, this may be someone impersonating a medical practitioner in order to acquire access to surgical theatre technology for digitally-performed procedures.

Some existing applications that generate “virtual worlds,” such as those available on numerous gaming platforms, provide a fair feel of the possible concerns. There is little doubt that serious safety concerns have already arisen in these contexts. For example, despite substantial attempts on the part of the firm to halt the flood of such content, recreations of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shooting targeting at very young children have been spotted many times on the Roblox platform.

Potentially worse than social media

For some children and teenagers, today’s social media platforms are already deadly. The level of immersion provided by virtual reality might exacerbate these issues, according to Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist and the head of medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “There’s a potency to being immersed in a reality that differs from seeing and interacting…through a flat screen display,” Rizzo explains. “Once you’re physically embodied in a space, even if you can’t be physically touched, we may be exposed to things that take on a level of reality that might be psychologically damaging.”

Another issue arises when using 3D digital avatars in the metaverse: The ability to alter your image in order to convey a version of oneself that varies from reality might be “quite problematic for teens in especially,” according to Prinstein. Prinstein is concerned that internet businesses are directing their social media and metaverse platforms at this highly suggestible group, at a critical stage of their brains’ mental and emotional development, with potentially dire consequences.

“This is just an amplification of the issues that we’ve already begun to see with the consequences of social media,” he adds. “This is exacerbating my loneliness.” This is causing considerably more body image issues [as well as] exposure to risky information connected to suicidality.”

Things are only about to get more difficult with the entrance of the metaverse.

“Imagine how tough it is to unplug from your mentions for a weekend when the same app also contains your financial accounts and employment,” Buxton adds. “The metaverse may become more than simply a wasteland of privacy; it may also become a jail from which there is little to no escape.” A seven-year inquiry into a metaverse offense will almost certainly result in privacy violations and addiction counseling for users by the time it concludes.”

A reactive and punitive style of moderation is now one of the most frequent forms of government in virtual worlds. This does not prevent harm from occurring in the first place, and penalties are frequently avoided as bad actors grow more clever in how they toe the line of rules. Finding strategies to incentivize better conduct and maybe reward good interactions may need to become a larger element of a safer digital future, especially given the rising safety threats in the metaverse.

Natasha Dean

With an eye for detail and understanding of this exciting industry. My experience has given me an understanding of crypto trends and how to effectively break them down. I have a soft spot for NFTs and the Metaverse.