Senator Franken Opens a New Front in the Battle over Privacy

April 11, 2016

REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH

REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH

Senator Al Franken has challenged virtual reality (VR) equipment developer, Oculus, to clarify and expand its privacy policies and practices.  In a letter to Oculus CEO, Brendan Irbe, Franken reportedly asked the company to explain its approach to the protection of the privacy of user data collected by Oculus VR equipment.  Franken’s inquiry extends the debate over personal privacy into the world of VR.

Oculus is currently one of the leading companies in the VR marketplace.  It created, manufactures, and sells a range of VR products for consumers, including VR headsets.  Those products provide immersive VR experiences and VR capabilities that augment the real environment.

Oculus equipment collects data regarding equipment operations.  For example, Oculus reportedly acknowledged that its devices track the physical location of those devices.  The also apparently capture information regarding the ways in which the devices are used and the physical movements of the device users.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerThe data collected by the devices are shared with Oculus and they help the company to understand the ways in which the equipment is used.  The data also help Oculus to monitor and eventually improve the performance of its products.

Franken’s inquiry raises a variety of privacy questions for Oculus and for the entire VR equipment industry.  It seeks basic information including a more thorough explanation of all of the data collected by the products and a review of all of the parties who have access to that data.  Additionally, Franken requests a clearer explanation of the ways in which all of the collected data are used.

The discussion initiated by Franken also raises a key issue associated with the scope of data collection by VR devices.  Many of those devices are in an “always on” mode.  This means that there is no “off” switch so that the equipment is always ready for immediate use.  It is currently unclear whether or not that “always on” status means that the equipment is collecting data at all times.

Privacy challenges presented by “always on” devices are becoming the subject of growing attention.  In the age of the “Internet of Things” when a wide variety of everyday devices and appliances remain in operation all day every day, those products can collects vast amounts of personal information.  Privacy policies must now address the extent to which devices collect and share information regarding users even when those devices are in operation but not in direct use by consumers.

Senator Franken’s inquiry is an important first step in an effort to extend information privacy protection into the world of VR.  The Senator’s action also appropriately directs attention to the extremely significant privacy challenges posed by products that continuously collect and share information about consumers, even when those consumers are not aware that such data harvesting is taking place.