When Facebook first announced it was changing its name to Meta, most people shrugged the move off as just a desperate attempt to distract people from the multiple problems associated with the tech juggernaut. However, Mark Zuckerberg himself took the time to explain that this was more than just a publicity stunt—it was all about the company’s desire to align itself with the future of the internet.
What does that future look like? According to Zuckerberg (and to many other enthusiasts out there), the internet will eventually become a metaverse. But, as we discussed right here on The Daily Bundle, this “embodied internet” (as Zuckerberg puts it) has plenty of challenges ranging from technical implementation to governmental buy-in.
However, the most troublesome issue for Facebook/Meta and any other major players investing themselves in the development of the metaverse is privacy. How come? Well, considering the multiple privacy issues surrounding most tech companies pushing for the metaverse, it’s only natural for people to give the metaverse the side-eye.
But the metaverse’s privacy issues go beyond the thorny history of the corporations that back it up. The idea itself has some shady aspects about data management and storage that we should look into before deciding whether the metaverse is a good idea or not.
A Myriad of Questions
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said that the metaverse will “rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online.” And while there’s some truth to what Haugen is saying, the reality feels more complex than that.
While Facebook/Meta will undoubtedly be one of the biggest proponents of the metaverse, the reality is that multiple corporations and organizations are already eyeing at the idea of contributing to the development of this alternative digital world. In other words, Meta might be a huge player but it won’t be the only one.
Facebook itself has addressed Haugen’s thoughts by saying that the company will be building the metaverse “responsibly” and it “won’t be built overnight by a single company.” The underlying idea is to collaborate with experts, industry partners, and policymakers to make sure the metaverse is the best possible version of this wild idea.
Does that put the worries to rest? Most certainly not. Quite the contrary! A declaration of intentions doesn’t erase the fact that the metaverse needs the coordinated actions of multiple actors, strict oversight, and a vast network of devices working together to power the whole thing. Implementation is key here and we’re most certainly in the dark when it comes to most details about it.
That naturally spurs a myriad of questions that don’t do the metaverse (and Facebook) any favors. How much data will the metaverse need to offer its hyper-personalized experience? How many devices will a user need to install in their homes to access it? Who will own the infrastructure on which the metaverse will run? What kind of privacy protections will it include? How will impartial organizations hold for-profits accountable for their actions on the metaverse?
The questions are too many to list.
The Seemingly Impossible Goal
Facebook/Meta is promising that it’ll do whatever it takes to “minimize the amount of data that’s used“ in the metaverse. The company also says that it’ll “build technology to enable privacy-protective data uses and give people transparency and control over their data.” That seems like the reasonable thing to say, given how much time Facebook has spent on the hot seat taking accusations about privacy issues.
However, there are some problematic things about it. First of all, if the metaverse is an expansion of our current internet, so it seems fairly impossible to reduce the amount of data needed for the platform to run. The reason is simple: the metaverse promises a highly personalized experience that can only be built on top of troves of information of each and every user. Without that data, companies can only offer generic experiences.
That’s not all. Facebook is pushing for the metaverse to be the hub for virtually everything, from playing games to meeting with friends and going to work. How can they expect to offer all those things without storing user information? After all, any exchange that happens within any given platform is based on data exchange. How can we be certain that the things we do in the metaverse aren’t going to be “anonymously stored” for “platform improvement purposes”?
Even if Meta achieves the seemingly impossible goal of offering a rich virtual experience with virtually no data collection, the metaverse is posed to be an aggregation of efforts. What’s stopping other companies from collecting data without being transparent about it?
I’d like to be optimistic about this and believe that lawmakers can actually institute regulations capable of preventing abuses. But we already have laws and regulations in place today and yet many companies still violate them. If we’re serious about the metaverse, that’s another front we have to cover.
And that’s without talking about the infrastructure itself. For the metaverse to work there would have to be a vast combination of servers, wearable devices, and sensors installed both on and off site. That constitutes a huge attack surface that hackers would love to target—and they certainly will. What’s stopping them from trying the same kind of attacks they are aiming at IoT devices but on the metaverse?
Security is a crucial issue here, as well. Only strong, proactive systems can make sure that any data existing within the metaverse is protected from prying eyes. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single flawless system out there, which means that the metaverse needs to take an aggressive cybersecurity approach if it wants to gain critical mass.
We Need Further Exploration
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering why I’m being so adamant about the metaverse. Well, you shouldn’t get me wrong, the metaverse is one of those things that feel like it could radically change everything for the better (just like the internet felt like when it was starting to emerge into the big public back in the 90s). However, I’m trying to be realistic here.
We need to do a lot of work before the metaverse actually becomes a viable option. There are plenty of fronts to worry about but, since we’re already discussing the possibility of the metaverse as the future of the internet, we need to start thinking about them right now. While we could discuss which one of those fronts is the most pressing, I think the modern landscape has shown us that we all need to feel secure and protected against attacks and intromissions.
That’s why I might come across as a harsh metaverse hater (which I’m certainly not!). As unpleasant as it might sound, further exploring the issues that might come with the metaverse is the only way we have to make sure that the metaverse doesn’t end up being a privacy nightmare. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to distrust everything about it. But given our collective history with social media, it’d be a good idea to push for the necessary discussions that lay down a clear path forward before we all put on our VR helmets and jump into the future.