Mitchell and I also talked about Oculus’ announcement of lowering the price of the Rift + Touch by $200, their twelve new games premiering at GDC, as well as a number of important issues concerning the future of virtual reality. There are a lot of exciting new possibilities that could come from Oculus’ support for WebVR and the Khronos Group’s OpenXR initiative, but we also had a chance to talk about some of the challenges that Oculus has faced this year including some of their tracking regressions and some of the limitations of front-facing camera set ups when it comes to abstractions of embodiment.
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Oculus is mostly taking a passive approach to privacy in VR where they’re prioritizing the needs and concerns of Facebook, which is reflected in how much data sharing rights are being provided to Facebook. The following is a sampling of data that when combined together could allow Facebook to determine personal identifiable information about you including your IP address, certain device identifiers that may be unique to your device, your mobile “device’s precise location, which is derived from sources such as the device’s GPS signal and information about nearby WiFi networks and cell towers,” “information about your physical movements,” and “information about your interactions with our Services.” Facebook will know that it’s your VR headset, where you’re located, and different actions that you’re taking from capturing everything you’re doing in VR and correlating it with your identity even if you’re anonymously interacting within the context of a VR experience. Once eye tracking and other technologies that can determine facial expressions are added, then there will be even more biometric data that could be able definitively identify you or whomever is using your VR headset.
In a candid moment, Mitchell said to me, “There are a lot of potential pitfalls over the future of VR and AR around user privacy. There’s never been a technology that brings so much of you into the experience, which is sort of that double-edged sword that’s the power of VR. But yeah, used in the wrong way or in the wrong hands, you can be tracked probably more than you would normally expect to be. Right? And I think that that’s only going to become more and more important as we develop new technologies that bring even more of you into the experience. And users are going to want to know and understand what’s actually happening under the hood.”
Oculus says that they’re using 60-second averages of physical movement data to debug their tracking. Mitchell said, “Almost all any of the live tracking we’re doing, almost all of it, is all really diagnostics focused. So if there’s a problem with your hardware, like a batch of hardware for example, we want to know that so that we can deliver a high-quality experience, and make sure that if there’s an issue with your system and reach into support, you can send us logs. And we can say, “Hey, clearly there’s a problem the Rift sensor” or something like that.”
Oculus is clearly using this data to debug and improve their technology, but it’s unclear whether Facebook could use this “physical movements” provision in order to record all sorts of eye movements, facial movements, and potentially more biometric data in the future. It’s a vague enough provision to potentially allow Facebook to capture a whole range of biometric data including eye tracking, galvanic skin response, heart rate and heart rate variability with ECG, muscle tension & facial expressions with EMG, and brain waves with EEG. This type of biometric data is usually gathered within a medical context protected by HIPAA or a marketing research context with explicit consent and privacy protections.
There are huge privacy implications that are coming with the technological roadmap of VR, and Facebook is sort of using Oculus as a technological shield to be able to develop this technology independent of the deeper advertising implications of the data that is going to be made available. When I asked Mitchell if the business models need to evolve beyond this type of privatized surveillance, he said that these types of new models are not something that Oculus is thinking extensively about right now. They’re mostly focusing on getting as many people in VR as possible. Oculus is working on the low-level implementation of VR while Facebook can think about what they’ll be able to do with all of this data.
In wrapping up his thoughts on privacy, Mitchell said, “So in summary: Very committed to user privacy. It’s something we take very seriously. It’s something we’re really focused on. We’re committed to taking care of user’s privacy. And you’re asking the right questions, keep asking them. I think right now, everything is in a good place across the industry. But that could change, and that’s something for folks like you to keep chatting about.”
Indeed this is something that the entire VR community needs to keep talking about, and it will change towards a direction that’s not a good place unless some of the deeper open questions listed down below are addressed. I’d also recommend listening to these interviews below about privacy in VR for more in-depth discussions.
Other recommended interviews about Privacy in VR:
Here are some of the open questions that should be asked of virtual reality hardware and software developers:
- What information is being tracked, recorded, and permanently stored from VR technologies?
- How will Privacy Policies be updated to account for Biometric Data?
- Do we need to evolve the business models in order to sustain VR content creation in the long-term?
- If not then what are the tradeoffs of privacy in using the existing ad-based revenue streams that are based upon a system of privatized surveillance that we’ve consented to over time?
- Should biometric data should be classified as medical information and protected under HIPAA protections?
- What is a conceptual framework for what data should be private and what should be public?
- What type of transparency and controls should users expect from companies?
- Should companies be getting explicit consent for the type of biometric data that they to capture, store, and tie back to our personal identities?
- If companies are able to diagnose medical conditions from these new biometric indicators, then what is their ethical responsibility of reporting this users?
- What is the potential for some of anonymized physical data to end up being personally identifiable using machine learning?
- What controls will be made available for users to opt-out of being tracked?
- What will be the safeguards in place to prevent the use of eye tracking cameras to personally identify people with biometric retina or iris scans?
- Are any of our voice conversations are being recorded for social VR interactions?
- Can VR companies ensure that there any private contexts in virtual reality where we are not being tracked and recorded? Or is recording everything the default?
- What kind of safeguards can be imposed to limit the tying our virtual actions to our actual identity in order to preserve our Fourth Amendment rights?
- How are VR application developers going to be educated and held accountable for their responsibilities of the types of sensitive personally identifiable information that could be recorded and stored within their experiences?
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