VR Tracking Facial Expressions May Be the Next Privacy Nightmare—Here's Why

And there’s virtually no escape

  • AR and VR use face and expression tracking for a more immersive game.
  • This private data could be very valuable.
  • Maybe this is why Facebook is so interested in the metaverse?
person using the Meta Quest 2 headset


Imagine your webcam recording your face the whole time you're using your computer or phone and giving that data to Facebook. Welcome to the metaverse.

Tech companies are constantly harvesting data about users. None of us believe our phone numbers, email addresses, or home and work locations are still private, but this is, unfortunately, the cost of doing business with companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple, some of whom can be trusted more than others with that data. But at least when you scan your fingerprint or face into your iPhone, that data stays private and doesn't leave the phone. With AR and VR, your face, and all the expressions you make with it, are fair game. 

"The reason many people have rightful concerns about the expanded use of facial recognition AI is the inability to avoid it," Rob Shavell, privacy expert and CEO of DeleteMe, told Lifewire via email. "All of the intelligence gathered from VR can be applied to any sort of commercial location or public surveillance cameras and result in more predictive marketing and even potential law enforcement applications."

Face It

We think of virtual reality devices as something that allows us to look out into another world, like a window or a television screen. But it may also be looking back at you, scanning your facial expressions to mimic and project them onto your in-game or in-world avatar. 

"Often companies hide behind functionalities like being able to control your avatar with facial expressions to be able to collect data about you," Damir First, CCO and cofounder of AR company Matterless, told Lifewire via email. 

This already happens to an extent when you use Apple's Memoji, little characters which you design and then animate themselves to mirror the expressions you make in front of the iPhone's FaceTime camera. 

It seems like a lot of fun, but those expressions could be an insanely valuable resource.

"In a world where we are constantly being watched and recorded, it's important to remember that your facial expressions are just as valuable as any other piece of data. They can be used to identify you, but they can also be used to influence how you behave," Michael Miller, CEO of cyber-security company VPN Online, told Lifewire via email. 

In a browser, ad vendors use cookies and other invasive "ad tech" to track your activity across the web. We're all accustomed to visiting an Amazon page, then having an ad for that item appear on other sites. But compared to face tracking, that stuff starts to look like newspaper ads. 

Nobody would consent to let Facebook view them through their laptop or phone's webcam while browsing, but with a VR or AR headset, that camera could be running all the time. It would see where you look, which ads catch your attention, which body parts you may stare at on another avatar's virtual body, and so on.

"Take, for example, the latest Quest Pro headsets from Meta. Face tracking and eye tracking are processed on the device itself. Meta does not deny that they still collect and send data to their servers. There is no way to opt out of being tracked and avoid having one's data taken and still being able to use the device," says First.

Privacy Last

And this data won't just be used in real-time. It will inevitably be saved, processed, analyzed, and linked with everything else Google and Facebook have on you. And that facial recognition engine, which has built an incredibly rich and detailed model, possibly in 3D, of how you express yourself, is utter gold for law enforcement and private data harvesters alike. And as with all technology, the law is far from able to protect us. 

"To a certain extent, privacy laws have become more understandable and transparent, but technology moves faster than legislation, and at this point, one is forced to adhere to having one's data collected by large data harvesters," Nils Pihl, CEO and founder of AR company Auki Labs, told Lifewire via email.

...it's important to remember that your facial expressions are just as valuable as any other piece of data.

Unfortunately, it seems there’s very little we can do to protect ourselves. This might explain why Mark Zuckerberg is so intent on AR and VR, flushing tens of billions of dollars a year down the virtual hole and even changing the company’s name to Meta. 

We can stop using it altogether, but the success of Facebook, despite its well-known privacy violations, shows that many people don’t care. What we need, like in so many places in the tech world, is proper legal protection, but that seems as likely as Big Tech relenting and deleting all the dirt it has on the majority of the world’s population.

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