Image of lots of mobile phones with the word Facebook on it

Facebook and the Metaverse: should we be worried about privacy?

29 October 2021
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has big plans
Facebook has announced a name change for its holding company at its annual conference to reposition itself as more than a social media company. But what does it mean for user privacy?

Dr Marcus Carter, an expert in Digital Cultures in the Socio-Tech Futures Lab, has been closely watching developments at Facebook over the past two years as part of his research into Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies. He says the company has been investing billions of dollars into VR and AR.

The new corporate name of the company is Meta, indicating a step towards the so-called 'metaverse', a virtual space where users can meet each other, shop, play and learn. (The social media app is still called Facebook.)

“This latest announcement is the culmination of seven years of corporate acquisitions, investments and research that kicked off with Facebook's post-IPO acquisition of the Virtual Reality headset company Oculus for US$2bn in 2014.”

“Mark Zuckerberg is betting big on the metaverse, which he believes is the next paradigm of computing. He wants to position himself in a controlling position, and is investing heavily. Estimates suggest Facebook already spends as much as US$10bn on its Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) research and development division.”

The ‘Ethical Implications of Emerging Mixed Reality’ project in the Socio-Tech Futures Lab, a collaboration between University of Sydney researcher Dr Carter, and QUT’s Dr Ben Egliston, has been researching the ethical questions that surround the growth of VR since 2019.

“Facebook’s VR push is about data, not gaming,” says Dr Carter. “Metaverse technologies like VR and AR are perhaps the most data-extractive digital sensors we’re likely to invite into our homes in the next decade.”

Privacy and VR data

In their recent research into current uses of VR data, they found enormous potential for discriminatory and algorithmic harm, the potential violation of individual user privacy, and the significant potential for societal harms. The researchers warn that the metaverse, under the corporate control of a company like Facebook, has the similar potential for societal harm as Artificial Intelligence.

“As we have argued in our research into Facebook’s VR company Oculus,” Dr Egliston notes, “Facebook likes to frame questions about VR and AR surveillance in terms of individual privacy. But Facebook’s previous failings, such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, are actually in the (un)ethical use of data and their asymmetric platform power.”

Dr Carter adds: “One thing that people don’t realise, is your use of VR is a behavioural biometric; the way you move your body is so unique, VR data can be used to identify you, like a fingerprint”.

Being able to track users so closely is enormously appealing to Facebook, who make as much as 98 percent of their revenue through targeted digital advertisements. While Facebook announced in September that it would be investing $50m in ‘building the metaverse responsibly’, these researchers aren’t convinced.

“Responsible innovation is often focused on individualised concepts of harm, rather than addressing structural issues with how new technologies might change societies for the worse,” Dr Carter said. “Often these types of initiatives are simply ‘privacy theatre’ or ‘ethics washing’. There is no guarantee that Facebook will actually listen to, or take on board, the recommendations from these experts, and they prevent us from discussing the need for immediate policy action”.

The researchers point to the example of digital rights non-profit Access Now, who participated in a Facebook AR privacy "design jam" for the recently released RayBan Stories AR smartglasses in 2020, and had their top recommendation ignored, and changes over time to Oculus’ data and privacy policies. Many of the organisations Facebook consults are themselves funded by Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthrocapitalist limited liability company (and not a charity) started by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Learn more

Ethical Implications of Emerging Mixed Reality Technologes [Open Access Report], sets out the emerging ethical questions for the metaverse such as the impact of AR and VR on work; privacy expectations in public space; issues with accessibility, inclusivity and exclusion; and surveillance and platform power. It has an accompanying YouTube video series.

Facebook’s VR push is about data, not gaming [Creative Commons Op Ed at The Conversation]

Ray-Ban Stories let you wear Facebook on your face. But why would you want to? [Creative Commons Op-Ed, Sydney Business Insights]

Dr Marcus Carter is co-director of the Socio-Tech Futures Lab (STuF Lab) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities)

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