A couple of years ago, we were concerned about our social media data sharing our political views, location, and personal details. It may sound now entirely innocent compared to today, when technology companies now want to collect your biometric and health data and begin to build virtual realities and digital copies of you based on that data. Patent applications indicate that Meta, Apple and Microsoft aim to do just that. Now is the time to change the way we deal with data before it is too late.
The Financial Times reported it has investigated hundreds of US patent applications, and found that, among other things, Meta wants to collect data like pupil movements, body poses, and nose scrunching and utilize them in their metaverse and its applications. According to the FT article, Meta has patented multiple technologies that collect and utilize users’ biometric data to help power what the user sees and ensure their digital avatars are animated realistically.
One category of patents seems to focus on tracking users’ movements and activities and then simulating them in virtual reality, e.g. when practicing sports in the metaverse or fighting in a game.
Another category of patents focuses more on the user’s visual appearance. Legal activist Noelle Martin told FT:
“Meta aims to be able to simulate you down to every skin pore, every strand of hair, every micromovement … the objective is to create 3D replicas of people, places and things, so hyper-realistic and tactile that they’re indistinguishable from what’s real, and then to intermediate any range of services… in truth, they’re undertaking a global human-cloning programme.”
Who owns your avatar?
When I wrote in November that metaverses were coming, I asked this question: who owns your avatar? I also predicted that metaverse companies are willing to collect biometric data to create digital clones of people. Physical appearance and movements are included in these patent applications, but we can assume it will go beyond that to wearables data, like your heart rate, sleep, stress level, and soon it will be about your health and DNA data.
We can see a lot of problems with this. But more specifically, we should seriously think about the following three issues:
Who has the rights to control and utilize personal data?
Is it really a good idea to grant patents for technologies that are built on personal data?
Who has the rights to run (and for which purposes) applications that utilize an individual person’s data, especially genetic, biometric and health data?
Digital rights for metaverses, biometric and health data
Generally, many countries have specific regulations governing the use of health data. For example, health care organizations must comply with particular rules prescribing when, how, and for which purposes health and biometric data can be used. Of course, in practice, some of the regulators (such as HIPAA in the US) regulate those matters in quite a general manner. But if the Internet and data giants come to this playing field, it probably will be a very different game soon, and it can be very rough for individuals. One could also claim that ethical standards of internet data versus health care companies are different, although both are actively seeking to monetize users.
We already see stories and horror scenarios of how some governments build perfect surveillance states to monitor and control individuals by collecting all data from individuals. Indeed, they are scary scenarios, but we must not ignore that some companies have similar visions to collect all data and analyze it, although the purpose is different. While the governments want to control everything their citizens do and think, the companies want to know how to manage individuals’ behavior and monetize them maximally.
However, this latter scenario also becomes scary if only a few companies can do this. One could say that it is optional for individuals to give data to these companies. In reality, however, things are not so simple. Those companies already dominate the market for devices and services you need to use in your daily communications, digital services, purchases, and other daily activities. As I wrote earlier, they own our digital life now, but it can be different soon.
FT’s article also points out that advertising will also be important for Meta in their metaverse plans. They will of course utilize data for ad targeting and personalization, and to sell digital services and goods in the metaverse. Nick Clegg, Meta’s head of global affairs, commented to FT:
“Clearly, you could do something similar [to existing ad targeting systems] in the metaverse — where you’re not selling eye-tracking data to advertisers, but in order to understand whether people engage with an advertisement or not, you need to be able to use data to know.”
This indicates that Meta is interested in using biometric data to know better which ads a user is interested in and how much.
One can say that the Internet giants have already won the game, and they will dominate the personal data market and its utilization. However, it is essential to remember that these patent applications also indicate that we are in the early days of data collection and utilization. Individuals still have much more data than any individual company has or can collect.
Facebook posts and locations can reveal a lot of things about you. But we will go to a totally new level if companies are able to collect your financial, biometric and health data and use it for advertising, and eventually for other purposes. That’s why we still have time to change data regulation and models, but it is time to act now.
We must also remember it is not only about what these companies can or cannot do with your data – we can actually empower people, especially if they can get apps that use their personal data to help them in their life.
There are already projects to build personal avatars with personal data, for example, to help individuals live healthier lives when the user can see the consequences of their daily lifestyle in their avatar’s appearance, readiness, and movements. Biometric and health data can be used for many applications that can help people to live better, healthier, and happier lives.
But users must have control and the ability to use their data and applications. Technically speaking, it is feasible to build user-held data and application models; it is now up to regulators, investors, and individual users to see that these business opportunities empower people, not just a few legacy platform companies.