Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The metaverse is a whole new world of data ethics

by Natalie Cramp, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion

Last year we were all given a glimpse of what the next stage of the internet could look like. Interconnected VR and AR worlds embedded into our daily lives. Dubbed the ‘metaverse’, it promises to revolutionise how we interact with our friends, families, coworkers and businesses.

Whether this idea fills you with dread or joy there’s no escaping that some form of virtual world will be created over the next few years. There’s simply too much time and money being invested and giants like Facebook (now Meta) have essentially bet their future on it. However, you don’t need to be a data science expert to see how, without the right safeguards in place, the metaverse could be fatal to our privacy and data security.

This may sound unduly pessimistic – after all the metaverse hasn’t been created yet and even when it is built it may go the way of curved TVs and 3D movies – an interesting idea that no one actually wants. Nevertheless, we do know that a number of technology trends such as VR hardware, facial and voice recognition and 3D scanning are maturing at a pace that will soon enable immersive experiences to become mainstream. With many companies seeking to differentiate their offering there is clear demand for some metaverse-type world in the near future.

With this comes a raft of new data ethics considerations. Virtual experiences have the capacity to capture a huge amount of personal information. Therefore the evolution to a more virtual world, whatever shape it may take, could offer the potential to collect more information on us than any platform before. This will most likely require the processes governing data collection, storage and utilisation to be revisited in order to ensure users’ rights are adequately protected as the lines between the real and the virtual blur.

Importantly though, technology always moves faster than the law. Therefore, when it comes to preparing for the metaverse, the likelihood is that the onus will be on businesses and marketers to take up the mantle and establish an ethical use of data which provides a stable pathway for the future trajectory.

First steps

The good news is that this doesn’t need to be timely or over-complicated. There are some simple steps businesses can take to promote best practice and ensure a solid ethical foundation is in place.

To begin with, companies should consider their people. Curating greater diversity in tech is critical to avoiding closed and self-reinforcing approaches to data and digital innovation and preventing unintentional bias in algorithms. In this way, creating a more diverse workforce should be seen as more than meeting a quota or ticking a box but a business imperative. To achieve this, businesses should give careful consideration to their recruitment process, making sure everything from job descriptions to interview formats promote an inclusive, unbiased agenda. Taking the time to actively target minority groups or seek referrals from minority employees can pay dividends in enabling greater representation too.

But recruiting diverse talent is only half the battle. Establishing an inclusive company culture that makes all employees feel welcome, recognised and supported, and actively celebrates differences and new ways of thinking is key to retaining a diversity of talent and wide intellectual capacity.

The next part is data education. While once confined to data analytics and business intelligence teams, the ability to understand and interpret data is now a common and essential task for every business area and ranking. Educating your entire team on how to manage and use data ensures everyone understands the opportunities, risks and standards they should adhere to ensure consistency across the board.

Next, good data accountability should always be top of the agenda for every company. At a basic level, companies should identify who is accountable for the impact of their use of data and that their applications are being used fairly. To ensure cross-organisation accountability, this should be established as a company-wide initiative with all employees aware of the various processes and procedures in place.

Finally, there is, of course, compliance. Many businesses will be well versed in the data protection and privacy legislation in their region which they must adhere to. However, we would always urge businesses to go beyond standard compliance. As the law struggles to keep up with the rapid and ever-evolving rate of technological innovation, the reality is that there will always be additional, non-mandatory opportunities to break new boundaries in data ethics and online privacy. Those that go the extra mile will enhance their reputation, while remaining enterprising and progressive.

Metaverse or no metaverse, the reality is that the lines between the physical and digital world continue to blur as technologies such as AI, VR and 5G hyperconnectivity become interwoven into our everyday lives. With this, comes greater onus on businesses and marketers to take a progressive approach to data ethics, ensuring their customers are adequately protected in the now while ensuring an approach which is fit for the future.