Why Augmented Reality is a Privacy Nightmare and What Can You Do to Protect Your Data in it?
One of the biggest news in the tech industry last year was the decision by Facebook to change its name to “Meta”. This isn’t your normal brand name change, it’s much more than that, but first and foremost, it shows which way Facebook wants to go.
Virtual and augmented reality technology.
Let’s take a look in this article at what augmented reality (AR) is, what makes it different from virtual reality (VR), what are the privacy concerns that come with it and how you can protect your privacy in AR.
What is Augmented Reality (AR)?
Imagine a reality that is “more” than this one. Augmented reality enhances (augments) the real world through sensory, visual and auditory digital elements.
The most famous example of AR is the game Pokemon Go, which took the world by storm back in 2016 and literally had people running around with their trying to catch imaginary monsters with their smartphone cameras.
This is just one example of AR, but companies have been more and more inventive in “augmenting” our real world.
Do you want to know if that table will fit into your living room? Test it with the IKEA Mobile App.
Not sure what kind of makeup to put on before a big date? Try various types with L’Oreal Makeup App.
The bottom line is that AR is not the future. The technology is already there but what does it mean for your personal data?
How is AR Different from VR (Virtual Reality)?
Augmented and virtual reality are often used interchangeably or even mixed up, but they are two different things.
While augmented reality is usually achieved through the eye of a smartphone camera, for example, virtual reality (VR) requires a special headset, such as VR goggles (like the ones Google launched unsuccessfully in 2013).
Together, AR and VR, alongside “mixed reality” (MR), which makes the 3D digital content responsive to the real world (think about a virtual ball bouncing off of real walls) make up something we can call “extended reality” or XR.
Death by Pokémon Go – The Dangers of Driving and Catching Pokemons on Smartphone Cameras
According to a paper titled “Death by Pokemon GO: The Economic and Human Cost of Using Apps While Driving“, written by Mara Faccio and John J. McConnell from Purdue University in 2017 (revised in October 2019), the number of traffic accident reports drastically increased between the months prior and after the release of the game on 6th July 2016.
The researchers particularly focused on the “Pokestops” locations, cross-referencing over 12,000 accident reports in the Tippecanoe County in Indiana and found that there were 26.5% more reported accidents on intersections that were within 100m of a Pokestop, compared to intersections that were further away.
Using police accident reports for Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and exploiting the introduction of the augmented reality game Pokemon GO as a natural experiment, we document a disproportionate increase in crashes and associated vehicular damage, injuries, and fatalities in the vicinity of locations where users can play plat the game while driving. We estimate the incremental county-wide cost of users playing Pokemon GO while driving to be in the range of $5.2 to $25.5 million over the 148 days following the introduction of the game. Extrapolating these estimates to nation-wide levels yields a total ranging from $2.0 to $7.3 billion.
Okay, so basically you shouldn’t be looking at your smartphone or camera while driving.
What about the user data? How does augmented reality affect it?
Users Data and AR and VR: How Augmented and Virtual Reality Create a Privacy Nightmare
If you were concerned about Facebook’s track record of collecting users data, things are not going to be any better now that the company is switching its business model to AR and VR technologies.
If anything, it’s only going to get worse.
Here’s a couple of reasons why:
Sextortion isn’t a new thing and there’s a good chance that you faced this threat once at least, whether fake or real.
But do you know what the most common search term associated with virtual reality is?
It’s “VR Porn”, with 550,00 volume, the same as “VR Apps”, according to Semrush.
In fact, the VR adult entertainment industry is expected to be worth $1 billion by 2025.
So what does that mean? It means that bad actors are going to jump on this to try to “sextort” people who may have visited an adult website via VR, threatening to leak whatever video they say they have if the user doesn’t pay them.
Imagine watching your favorite actor or athlete giving an interview and he starts praising Hitler or talking about killing babies.
Impossible you say?
Not so much with deepfakes.
Thanks to the wonderful technology of machine learning and facial recognition, the dangers of which we already discussed in another article, it’s now possible to create genuine-looking footage (but ultimately fake) of just about anyone saying anything.
This can range from something funny and innocuous as casting Silvester Stalone in “Home Alone” (or “Home Stallone” if you will), but it can also be much more dangerous.
The good news is that, right now, it’s fairly easy to spot a deepfake video, but as the VR technology continues to improve, it’s going to become harder and harder to recognize it.
3. Eye-Tracking Cameras
Marketers are already using eye-tracking software to determine what customers might be interested in buying in order to sell you more products like it.
But did you know that eye scanning is a biometric authenticator and can be used to not just determine what products you like, but also track your online activities and even compromise your privacy?
To make matters worse, marketers typically use eye-tracking technology without any knowledge or consent from the user, which can lead to identity theft and data breaches.
Of course, AR and VR apps are not immune to all kinds of malicious content such as malware and spyware that hackers can introduce via adverts.
The problem here is that the user might be even more vulnerable to this than is the case with malware in the “real world” as in augmented reality our “defenses” might be lowered so much that we don’t recognize the malware danger before it is too late.
This eventually leads to malware infections and hackers being able to see what content you search for online, even stealing your passwords.
How to Protect Your Data in the Augmented/Virtual World?
So how do you protect your data and make sure it is safe in the augmented and virtual world?
It’s not all that different from the real world actually.
1. Avoid Disclosing Any Information that is Too Personal
Before disclosing any information through AR or VR (or IRL actually), stop and consider is this something personal and/or necessary? If the answer is “yes” to either, don’t disclose it.
This especially goes for personal data and financial information unless you are paying for something.
2. Review the Company’s Privacy Policies
In 2014, Facebook acquired a virtual reality company Oculus for about $3 billion. Initially, the two were supposed to be separate and Oculus users were able to log in with their Oculus ID into their device.
However, slowly, but steadily, Oculus was absorbed into the giant social network and by May 2018, a Facebook login was required to access Oculus VR. All to “provide more relevant content”, said Facebook.
Now, with Facebook’s track record of data collection, are you not quite a bit concerned about this?
3. Keep Software Up-to-Date
Another thing that stays the same whether you’re in the real or augmented/virtual/extended world is a necessity to keep the software up to date.
When it comes to AR and VR, this might be even more important as these are still relatively new technologies and are witnessing incredible expansion, which makes them more vulnerable to software bugs and security flaws.
4. Browse Safely
Finally, be sure to browse the Internet safely when using AR and VR software.
The best way you can do this is by using a VPN service and also using anti-virus software to protect both your privacy and your data.
Augmented and virtual reality is not “coming”. It’s at the front door already and with it, it brings a lot of good things.
However, AR is not all “roses and rainbows” and instead brings with it a big privacy risk. Hopefully, you now understand that risk a little more and are a bit better prepared to deal with it and protect your data.
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