Our future technology has a lot of amazing possibilities, and few have more promise than augmented and mixed reality headsets. But these advancements come with several concerns over privacy, and if we don't understand them, we may lose control of our own data without even knowing.
The Problem with Passive Data Collection
The danger of data privacy issues exists right now. We give our smartphones a large amount of information about us willfully, and they passively collect even more. We often don't realize this is happening and have to decide whether we trust corporations, large and small, with potentially sensitive and personal data.
This problem becomes even more significant with augmented and mixed reality headsets. They not only passively capture information about the places we live, but have a greater understanding of our environments, and even our own bodies, more than anything else we've seen thus far.
Wired's Kevin Kelly explains the various problems we may encounter in the future in his cover story on the Magic Leap:
This comprehensive tracking of your behavior inside these worlds could be used to sell you things, to redirect your attention, to compile a history of your interests, to persuade you subliminally, to quantify your actions for self-improvement, to personalize the next scene, and so on. If a smartphone is a surveillance device we voluntarily carry in our pocket, then VR will be a total surveillance state we voluntarily enter.
Headsets collect room data for practical purposes, of course. They need to know where objects are in the room, or to track the movements of your appendages, in order for certain apps and games to operate. This will happen with your future smartphones as well, thanks to efforts like Google's Project Tango that seek to add more sensors to help devices understand their environments without any interaction on your part.
It could be safe to assume most software we use and give data to today has no malicious intent. For example, Google uses data from your Gmail to make your calendar experience better. But even simple data sharing can lead to leaks and problems in the future. Just because such manipulative use isn't widespread today doesn't mean it won't be tomorrow when the stakes are higher.
This is also not a problem that builds over time. It only takes one data breach to cause serious issues for any given person. Once your data is out there, your privacy and identity are at risk. Multiple data breaches could make problems worse, but it only takes one instance to cause significant damage. If you don't protect yourself, you won't necessarily get a second chance.
Currently, technology that understands its location while actively watching and listening during use only exists in the development stage. As a result, safeguards to help ensure this kind of data remains in our control have yet to be developed.
Without scrutinizing your network data and examining app code, you can't really know where your data is going if the app or operating system doesn't outright inform you. Both of these options have their limitations, too, and are tedious, cumbersome, and highly technical processes. You probably won't want to bother with these methods even if you know exactly what to do.
This is the problem with passive data collection. In many cases it won't matter, but if one app or company goes rogue, you can quickly lose a lot of sensitive information and never know until the problems begin to occur. On the lighter side, very specific information about you could be sold without your permission and used to spam you with ads, telesales, and other junk you don't want.
More problematic, however, is if that data ends up in the hands of any sort of criminal. Robbers could gain a full map of your house and figure out when you're away from home. Plenty of the data is also ripe for identity theft, and hackers who take control of headsets could potentially see through your eyes. These are just a few possibilities we can imagine now. As technology grows to understand you and its surroundings better, so will new and clever ways to exploit it.
Furthermore, despite the best attempts of companies like Microsoft to eliminate viruses as an issue in their operating system, success is far from guaranteed. The threat of data theft has always existed, and the more useful data a thief can steal from a device the more attractive that prospect becomes.
What Can We Do About It?
Given the benefits of these augmented and mixed reality devices, and the promise of what's to come, many people will want to use them on a daily basis. While you can't (or, at least, may not have the necessary time) to do much to prevent data leaks, your first step toward preventing the problem is awareness.
When you know your data could be compromised, you can choose what you allow your device to collect and retain. This effort can be as simple as limiting its use to certain rooms that don't contain any sensitive, personal information when running apps that collect visual data. This may seem a bit paranoid, but it doesn't require you to do much of anything if you've got a relatively open room without anything too private clearly in view. When using a mixed or augmented reality headset, you'll want space to move around anyhow.
Just like you should when your smartphones ask permission to access hardware or data, you want to make sure you find out why your holographic headset needs those permissions as well. A voice memos app just needs your microphone to record a note and may not even connect to the internet at all. In that case, you probably won't risk much by allowing microphone access.
But some apps, like Facebook Messenger, sometimes utilize your microphone in ways you might not expect. Perhaps they're not malicious in their intent, but I think most of us would like to know explicitly when we're being recorded for any reason.
Beyond a reasonable amount of vigilance, you can contact companies developing these technologies (e.g. Microsoft, Meta, and Magic Leap) and ask them what they're doing to protect your privacy. They may not have a definitive answer yet, but simply letting them know you want your data protected underscores the importance of privacy in a rapidly changing world.
Some risks are worth the rewards, and I believe mixed reality is one of them. It's an incredible technology even in its infancy, and the benefits outweigh the risks. But that's not an excuse to ignore the dangers new technologies may bring. As you should with anything new, make sure you learn how it works and understand the potential risks. Knowledge and awareness can go a long way.
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