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The Convergence of Virtual Reality and Social Networks: Threats to Privacy and Autonomy

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The rapid evolution of information, communication and entertainment technologies will transform the lives of citizens and ultimately transform society. This paper focuses on ethical issues associated with the likely convergence of virtual realities (VR) and social networks (SNs), hereafter VRSNs. We examine a scenario in which a significant segment of the world’s population has a presence in a VRSN. Given the pace of technological development and the popularity of these new forms of social interaction, this scenario is plausible. However, it brings with it ethical problems. Two central ethical issues are addressed: those of privacy and those of autonomy. VRSNs pose threats to both privacy and autonomy. The threats to privacy can be broadly categorized as threats to informational privacy, threats to physical privacy, and threats to associational privacy. Each of these threats is further subdivided. The threats to autonomy can be broadly categorized as threats to freedom, to knowledge and to authenticity. Again, these three threats are divided into subcategories. Having categorized the main threats posed by VRSNs, a number of recommendations are provided so that policy-makers, developers, and users can make the best possible use of VRSNs.

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  1. There is also academic interest in the merger of VR and SNs: the European Union has funded a 4 year research project that brings together key players in both domains—REVERIE—that aims to provide “the means for building a mixed reality space in which real and virtual worlds engage and seamlessly interact in real‐time, generating compelling and highly realistic immersive environments” (Objectives-REVERIE 2014). This will, it is thought, “introduce a paradigm shift for how communication happens in social networks” (ibid) by revolutionizing “immersive media distribution from a passive centralized context to a personalized highly distributed framework” (ibid). Furthermore, this “will provide for the individuals new ways of 3D/immersive media sharing and distribution under a socially aware, personalized, collaborative and distributed framework” (Expected Results-REVERIE 2014).

  2. Clearly data will need to be protected in other scenarios also.

  3. Everyone with a Gmail account has automatically been given a Google+ account; whilst Microsoft’s latest Windows system—Windows 8—requires users to create a Microsoft account if they are to avail of many of the applications that come with the software.

  4. The EU has been active in these areas, e.g. a proposed directive of the European Parliament on the protection of individuals regarding the processing of their data by authorities security or criminal purposes (Commission 2012). See also the “right to be forgotten” ruling that makes internet search engine operators responsible for the processing that they carry out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties (Skouris et al. 2014).


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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programmes (FP7/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement No. ICT-2011-7-287723 (REVERIE project).

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Correspondence to Fiachra O’Brolcháin.

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O’Brolcháin, F., Jacquemard, T., Monaghan, D. et al. The Convergence of Virtual Reality and Social Networks: Threats to Privacy and Autonomy. Sci Eng Ethics 22, 1–29 (2016).

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