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Why AR Is A Privacy Nightmare

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

This week's blog is part one of a series on how augmented and virtual reality are already affecting all of us. With experts predicting a privacy crisis on the horizon for the average person, this is something we should all pay attention to.

First up we're looking at AR, Augmented Reality, which is a technology that adds visual, auditory, or other sensory input onto our real world. It sounds super high-tech, like spyware, but we are already interacting with this technology. We use social app face filters and shopping apps that show how products will look in our homes. The QR codes we scan that show us hidden discounts or launch us to an instruction video all add to our reality.

AR is incredibly useful, and with the push by Big Tech to move from phones to wearables, there promises to be even less of a barrier between us and the digital world. Imagine walking down a street and your smart glasses provide pop-up information on restaurant ratings, sales at a store you're passing, even nearby public transportation schedules. Convenient? Of course. Properly regulated to protect our data privacy...not even close.

But what kind of information can they possibly get from a filter of dog ears and tongue? What data is really available to those friendly apps we so readily use? A lot, it turns out.

According to a paper by the Future of Privacy Forum, "Some VR and AR systems rely on biometric identifiers and measurements, real-time tracking of individuals’ location, and precise maps of the physical world including the interiors of homes, offices, and medical facilities."

What does that mean for the average Jane? AR programs can use your device's camera, gyroscope movent, and depth sensors to gather information on where you are. These apps can use your microphone to record your voice pattern as well as the ambient noise of your location. Some applications can even use the inward-facing sensors on your phone to track where you look while watching an ad or playing a game.

Think about the Pokemon Go phenomenon. The game overlayed digital creatures and buildings (gyms) onto our real life. I played it for some time as a means to encourage myself to get out from behind my desk and get some fresh air. It was great fun and created a sense of community. To give me that experience, the app needed a detailed local spatial map. It recorded my movements as I tried to capture each figure. It kept track of my interaction with other players and for how long, and much more.

All of this is fine if you are aware and consent to this information gathering to reap the benefits. But there's a problem. Because AR needs this information to better calibrate the experience to the user, it may inadvertently record people's faces, private spaces, and activities. Something that wasn't consented to by those around you. Plus, there are little to no parameters on how that data can be used or shared. Scary, right? Without proper regulation, AR has the potential to destroy any privacy we have left. However, this isn't the biggest threat to our rights as citizens.

Imagine that you aren't purposely holding up your phone to view through it. Suppose we have a comfortable, affordable alternative to a handheld device. Something like glasses. Consider how much more information of yours is now available. Programs will be able to track your gait, stability, and speed. All vital indicators of health. Who would have access to this? What about orientation? With glasses, where you look, what pulls your attention, even your eye movements and tracking can be recorded. With these always-on games that stream both audio and visual to the provider of everyone and everything around us, doesn't that make us all a part of the surveillance state? Or maybe a panopticon is a better fit?

Fortunately, there are court cases winding through the legal system addressing this and many upcoming issues surrounding AR. For a more in-depth look at the problems and efforts to address them, check out The Electronic Frontier Foundation's article, Augmented Reality Must Have Augmented Privacy. I promise it's an enlightening read.


The Upside

Like most technology, AR is a double-edged sword. Now that we've explored the risks, let's look at the rewards of this kind of advancement.

For instance, AR has opened up a whole new way of experiencing art. Sian Fan does some beautiful work combining AR, installations, and performances. You should check out her Instagram.

One of my favorite artists combines technology and street art, two of my favorite things. Bond Truluv's work is large and loud. Check out his work in the video above. The best and worst part? No extra equipment is needed. Just the phone you always have on you.

For history buffs, Civilisations is an educational app that takes you around the globe to learn about ancient history. The app shows you authentic intricately scanned artifacts that you can manipulate and see as close as if you were at the dig site itself.

I am an avid stargazer and space nerd, so this next app is one of my favorites. It's called Mission to Mars and is a beautifully interactive experience. There is overlap with the Smithsonian app as well. You can play games, navigate the Martian landscape, and even drive a rover. I highly recommend it. If you like this one, NASA has quite a few other AR apps to help you explore space. There's even one that puts you in an astronaut suit!

I hope you come away from this post with a healthy understanding of the pros and cons of using this kind of technology. It deserves some caution but ultimately I think it will do wonders for us as a whole. What do you think?


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