Meta and Apple Implicated in 3D Web Human Rights Warning

A recent scholarly paper from the NYU Stern issued a cautionary note regarding the dangers of extended reality (XR) 3D technologies. These cameras, sensors, and microphone-equipped devices have the potential to be a gold mine for data harvesters. According to the paper, this might even degrade our privacy, turning it into a commodity for corporate profit.

Privacy Under Threat

The report, conducted by researchers at NYU Stern, cautions users against signing up for augmented or virtual reality applications and fitness tracking apps without careful consideration. Why the concern? Because the data collected by these XR devices may include our most personal physical reactions and movements, which could then be tracked, logged, and sold to the highest bidder.

The Power of Tech Giants

Tech titans Meta and Apple are prominent actors in the area of XR. Their clout in this arena is apparent. According to the NYU Stern research, these corporations have the ability to wield an excessive amount of authority in order to extort, control, and coerce. While it does not directly accuse them of such conduct, it does raise concerns about the technologies built into their gadgets that could enable such intrusive usage of electricity.

Privacy as a Human Right

NYU Stern makes it clear that privacy is a fundamental human right. It is the cornerstone of liberal democracy, based on the idea that individuals are entitled to a personal sphere free from state or corporate interference. This sphere allows individuals to explore and develop their identities and convictions without fear of surveillance or manipulation.
The XR Technologies

However, the XR technologies developed by firms such as Meta and Apple are specifically designed to capture and process this sensitive personal information. These gadgets are outfitted with sensors that continuously track a variety of user data, such as head motions, eye movements, and spatial maps of their actual environment. XR experiences would be constrained and less pleasurable without this data, resulting in motion sickness and physical collisions in the real world during virtual experiences.

Surveillance Capitalism

The advanced tracking software that enables flawless XR experiences is surveillance capitalism's fantasy come true. Additional body data can be tracked, such as facial expressions, hand and limb movements, pupil dilation, iris or retina imaging, and even speech data. According to Louis Rosenberg, an expert in the field, these traits could make XR the most lethal tool of persuasion ever produced.

The Power to Influence

What does this mean in practice? It means that large metaverse platforms could potentially track billions of people and influence select individuals by altering their virtual surroundings in targeted and adaptive ways. This influence could cross the line into insidious manipulation, using users' involuntary reactions to stimuli to curate their digital content and experience in ways that optimize specific responses. This could include decisions to purchase products or beliefs in disinformation.

Data Beyond Imagination

If the data collected by XR devices is aggregated and exploited, it has the potential to outperform even surveillance systems such as NSO Group's Pegasus spyware. XR technologies acquire data that reveals an individual's involuntary and unchangeable features, such as vocal inflections, gait patterns, precise facial expressions, gestures, movement peculiarities, and real-time bodily responses to stimuli.

Fitness and Wellbeing Apps

While gaming represents a significant level of data surveillance, fitness and wellbeing apps could take it even further. Depending on the immersive experience, users may consent to track physiological data like heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. While this tracking is desirable for specific applications, it also enables more sophisticated analysis of users' physical, emotional, and mental states.

The Age of Biometric Psychography

At this degree of data gathering and analysis, "biometric psychography" profiles can be created. These profiles dive into a person's unique interests, aversions, and weaknesses based on their instinctive and frequently unconscious responses to stimuli. It's essentially "mind reading," documenting what users look at, how long their attention is held, and even how they feel about what they see.

Divergent Approaches

The report notes that Meta and Apple take different approaches to user data. Meta relies heavily on user data for targeted advertising, while Apple's revenue primarily comes from hardware sales and app commissions. Apple has positioned itself as a guardian of privacy, but Meta's data-driven ad-based model raises questions about its privacy policies.
Meta's Data Practices

Meta's metaverse product terms of service and privacy policies allow for the monetization of user data acquired by the devices. When customers enable technologies such as eye tracking, hand tracking, voice tracking, and facial expression monitoring for immersive experiences, the corporation gains access to their data. Meta also disclaims liability for the data practices of third-party developers with whom it shares user information.

Apple's Position

Apple has pledged not to collect eye-movement data, but questions linger about what it does with body- and face-tracking data. Additionally, Apple has yet to release a detailed privacy policy for its Vision Pro headset, slated for release early next year.

The Need for Privacy Regulations

While certain jurisdictions, such as California and the European Union, have taken steps to protect users' data from potential misuse by 3D Metaverse corporations, the paper contends that existing regulations around the world have substantial gaps. The United States, for instance, does not have federal solid privacy protections.

The Global Challenge

One major challenge in regulating XR technologies is their borderless nature. Immersive platforms transcend borders, while regulations remain jurisdictional. The report highlights that global legal protections often leave the majority of the world's population without a say in how tech companies use their data.

A Call for Responsibility

Finally, NYU Stern asks tech behemoths and the 3D Metaverse business to take responsibility and not wait for regulation to do so. It proposes that businesses voluntarily embrace the best data protection policies in order to provide customers with robust privacy safeguards against illicit practices. While the future of XR technology looks bright, it also poses serious concerns about how to strike a balance between innovation and privacy protection.

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