The metaverse has recently gained significant traction, with big tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft leading the charge. The metaverse is a virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios. It would mean more data than ever being gathered on individual users, which is a big concern from a data privacy perspective.

The metaverse is a long way off becoming mainstream and is in danger of being overhyped, a fate that has befallen virtual reality (VR) on several occasions. However, Mark Zuckerberg has described the metaverse as ‘the successor of the mobile internet,’ which suggests it may be more than a fad.

The metaverse is gaining significant traction

Initial traction for the metaverse is evident from recent M&A activity and funding rounds. For example, in August 2021, Roblox – a maker of user-generated games – acquired Guilded, a start-up that makes virtual communication platforms for gamers. In April 2021, Epic Games announced a $1bn funding round to develop a metaverse within Fortnite, with Sony contributing $200m to this endeavour.

An enterprise-grade metaverse is also under development. Nvidia, for example, is actively promoting its Omniverse platform by offering it to engineering clients who use Blender, software that allows users to create 3D images. It is clear from this that there are several different possibilities for what the metaverse could eventually become.

Use cases could amplify pre-existing issues

The metaverse comes with a host of privacy and security concerns. Specifically, sophisticated deep fakes and other cybersecurity issues. Metaverse providers will be able to access more of a user’s data, including biometric, location, and banking information, which will exist almost exclusively in virtual form.

GlobalData’s Data Privacy report states that “many online business models are based on the premise that the internet is a free source of information. This meant that most internet companies had to adopt an advertising business model to survive.” This is true of two of the world’s largest companies – Facebook and Google. The cost of this model to consumers is the abuse and misuse of personal data for targeted advertising.

Furthermore, those leading the way on the metaverse are also those who have been pulled up on infringements regarding consumer data privacy. In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission issued Facebook a $5bn fine for consumer data breaches and introduced more stringent privacy restrictions on the social media platform. For these reasons, it follows that data privacy will remain an issue when developing the metaverse.

Forewarned is forearmed

Developers of the metaverse should see these issues coming a mile off and act accordingly. This means putting in place privacy by design when developing the software and hardware needed to make the metaverse a reality. This is already a requirement in virtual and augmented reality technologies, which will be critical in the metaverse. For example, in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Google Glass has audio and visual symbols which appear to let users know when they are being recorded.

The metaverse is a moon-shot goal for Silicon Valley, a distant possibility for which Big Tech is already laying the groundwork, spending billions in the process. However, as it becomes a focus for gaming, social media, and other tech companies, the metaverse will have similar privacy and security issues as the internet. These issues will need to be addressed by those who land on the moon first.