Data privacy practices needed to protect users of immersive experiences

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At Forrester’s Security and Risk Summit today, the company discussed how individuals’ demand for and data collection would evolve as digital experiences like the metaverse become more immersive and intelligent.

Immersive platforms are already driving business investment, changing customer expectations and shaping new engagement models. But while many companies have plans to use personal data, few know how to keep it safe.

Forrester explained that fundamental pillars such as protecting a person’s data, trusted identities and attributes will play a key role in delivering on the promise of immersive digital experiences of the future.

An interactive future

Enza Iannopollo, principal analyst at Forrester, said the metaverse market is expected to be worth $800 billion, but the environment remains relatively underexposed from a security and privacy standpoint.

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“With the advent of digital avatars, users will be able to communicate more efficiently and express themselves through audio and text,” says Iannopollo. “But the privacy aspect within these immersive platforms is extremely complex and still a challenge for many. That is why it is vital to establish privacy practices and protect users.”

Iannopollo said developments within the metaverse domain should follow the evolutionary path of digital experiences to develop concrete privacy practices.

“Existing privacy rules don’t show enforcement on virtual experiences,” she said. “We found that while privacy concerns many users, it has not yet been fully understood and generalized. Therefore, it is important for developers and organizations not to take the human-centric approach to development for granted.”

Data privacy concerns looming

Iannopollo explained that while virtual and augmented reality can create next-gen experiences for industries such as healthcare, education and retail, it also enables psychological and emotional manipulation of its users on an unimaginable level.

A recent study by Cornell University demonstrated how virtual reality (VR) attackers were able to covertly retrieve dozens of personal data attributes from seemingly anonymous users of popular metaverse applications, shedding light on the metaverse’s unique privacy risks.

In the study, 30 participants tested what they thought was an escape room game in VR. Behind the scenes, a malicious program consisting of a Monte Carlo diagnostic model was able to derive more than 25 personal data attributes, from characteristics such as height and wingspan to demographics such as age and gender, within just a few minutes of gameplay. The program also successfully captured emotional characteristics such as depression levels in players.

“With notoriously data-hungry companies getting more and more involved in VR development,” noted Iannopollo, “this experimental scenario may soon represent a typical VR user experience.”

That’s why Iannopollo said it would be critical to close privacy gaps and establish new data privacy best practices. “Following a privacy-enhancing UX design practice that acknowledges cognitive biases and human error, respects user autonomy, and prioritizes choices that protect user privacy would play a critical role in human-centric metaverse development.”

Image source: Forrester.

The future of immersive experiences

Forrester predicts that digital experiences will merge profoundly with physical experiences in the next 10 years, with digital identities carrying privacy meanings in a highly contextual model of embedded governance.

“Over the next 10 years, data governance is expected to be embedded in the design principles of mainstream environments. As a result, we believe that embedded privacy will become a critical part of the DNA of digitally immersive experiences in the future,” said Iannopollo.

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