Will Virtual Reality Make Privacy Obsolete?

As a child, I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. My dad worked for a major airline as a mechanic and I spent a fair amount of time in and around aircraft as a result.


Dad was also a big computer nerd who always had the latest and greatest personal computer in the house. Those two interests combined in the form of flight simulators. The first I can recall was Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Simulator on the Commodore 64, a program which used simple geometry and rows of lights on the ground as reference points to indicate that you were moving. Later came Microsoft Flight Simulator in its various and progressive forms, raising the bar of realism and fidelity with each new version.

Having recently built a new computing rig, I have a renewed interest in flight simulation after many years away from it. I’m currently deliberating between the purchase of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, the most recent yet dated entry in that franchise, or the more contemporary X-Plane 10.

One of the truly amazing selling points of the latter is its immersive recreation of the entire planet. X-Plane 10 utilizes terrain and scenery auto-generation built atop data obtained from OpenStreetMap to simulate your town – and every other one on Earth – with amazing fidelity. In one video demonstrating the technology, the lead developer boasts that the road system proves adequately detailed to serve as a driving simulator. Indeed, YouTube videos showing a virtual drive down X-Plane 10’s streets prove reminiscent of any given trip through any given suburb, complete with picket fences and SUVs.


File that to the side as the status quo. Then consider emerging technologies such as the Oculus Rift, a new headset which appears to deliver on the long coveted dream of virtual reality. Writing for IGN, Richard Wordsworth summarizes the potential of the Rift:

What we’re really talking about with the Rift is the invention of The Matrix, the opening up of new possibilities for everything you can do with your eyes without leaving your seat. And no-one’s even going to stick a metal spike into your brain.

While the device has obvious gaming applications, its potential uses outside gaming seem limited only by the imagination. Wordsworth elaborates:

Siciliano Viglieri’s Rift-compatible version of Street View does exactly what you’d expect: it takes Google’s massive, globe-spanning database of panoramic snapshots and puts the user in the middle, letting them ‘walk’ down the Champs Elysees, or stand outside their house, peering into their own drawing room. With the Rift headset, however, there’s none of that cumbersome clicking and dragging – just warping to a location and having a look around.

As you’d expect with such nascent technology, Siciliano Viglieri’s prototype for next-gen Street View isn’t quite teleportation yet. Unavoidably, Street View still does that whoosh-ing from one point to another, built as each location is from a composition of still photographs. There are also teething issues with the controls, which he intends to fix by adding gamepad support (“Finding the mouse or the keyboard with the Oculus Rift on your face is not an easy task!” he says).

But Siciliano Viglieri fully expects Google to offer official support to the Rift in time, adding more detail and greater depth. And with Google ironing out the issues, who knows what’s next? Perhaps that ‘whoosh’ is actually the first step toward proper virtual tourism. Have an hour-long lunch break to kill? Strap on a Rift and go for a paddle on the Great Barrier Reef. Nose around a Mayan temple. Turn up the air-con and zip over to Antarctica. It’s your world, space ranger.


Pair that with bone-conducting technology like that which Sky Deutschland has considered using to beam audio advertisements directly into commuters skulls and you have the potential to create a virtual world which effectively immerses the user. The convergence of these technologies will enable people to transport themselves anywhere real or imagined.

Similar technology could be utilized to augment reality. Think of Google Glass and walking down the street considering informational pop-ups above every building you pass, or following a three-dimensional, turn-by-turn set of directions.

While the ultimate trajectory of these developments cannot be comprehensively predicted, we know one thing for sure. Our current sense of privacy will not survive this new digital revolution. As circumstances stand today, libertarians squawk indignation at unmanned aerial drones flying overhead taking video or still photographs. It turns out that’s child’s play. Tomorrow, through a process likely no more tangible or evasive, your property and even your person will be instantly digitized for virtual reconstruction toward any purpose imaginable. Utilizing blueprints which may be available from public records, or descriptions provided by others, the interior of your home or business could be recreated using future iterations of the same scenery auto-generation which enables me to fly over my house today in X-Plane 10. The accuracy of the experience would depend upon the data input, but could conceivably reach levels indistinguishable from reality.


Commercial applications like virtual real estate tours thrill the imagination. However, think also about the tactical implications for military, police, and even criminal operations. Raids could be planned out and rehearsed in heretofore unparalleled detail, accounting for likely escape routes on any scale from a particular room to an international manhunt.

We cannot fully anticipate all the implications of such a game-changing convergence of technology. We can, however, apply timeless principles and begin to anticipate how our culture and government might reasonably respond.

Much has been made of privacy rights, which are too often represented as fundamental and inalienable. In truth, our perceived right to privacy is derived from the actual right to property. The right to control how one’s property is disposed of or accessed manifests as privacy. Aside from that, there exists no inherent right to proceed through life unobserved. We acknowledge this in our erection of fences or planting of tree lines, our pulling of shades or tinting of windows. These methods of controlling visual access to our property create the condition of privacy.

Clearly, with the advancement of technology like unmanned aerial drones, infrared photography, and now virtual reality, those old methods of obstructing an unwanted gaze have lost their effectiveness. From a rights perspective, there is little which can be done to put the technological genie back in the bottle. The same right to property which enables our privacy allows others to conjure the technological means to invade it. Try as governments might, technological prohibition will not work and proves immoral.


That said, the market may provide solutions. One possibility is the emergence of an electromagnetic security industry, utilizing jamming technology to disrupt electronic surveillance. Contractual solutions may also develop. Consider homeowner associations which impose rules upon their private members and control access to the community. Rules could be crafted regarding electronic surveillance which could then be enforced through civil law.

Most likely, the long-term solution will be a cultural adjustment to a new technological reality. Just as developments like television, radio, the internet, and social media have made the world a much smaller and more intimate place over the past century, emerging technologies will continue to reshape our ideas regarding etiquette and protocol. Privacy may not become obsolete. But it may require an upgrade.


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