VR Devices Collect ‘Intimate’ Data, Lack Privacy Protections. Should Schools Invest?

Virtual reality can take students on a tour of deep space or even the human digestive system. But along the way, VR devices can also collect more than a million pieces of specific personal data, from how the user’s pupils dilate to what makes them blush.

Virtual reality has been hyped as a potential game changer for K-12 education. But the already expensive VR headsets come with additional costs for students’ data privacy, according to an analysis by Common Sense Media, a research and advocacy organization that studies the role of technology in children’s lives.

The most popular devices on the market all have serious privacy issues, Common Sense found, leaving school districts looking to invest in VR with no viable option.

“At this time, we cannot recommend any device to schools and districts that does not potentially violate state or federal privacy laws,” said Girard Kelly, director of privacy at Common Sense, which conducted the analysis. “School districts should probably hold back a bit if they’re interested in purchasing VR for an Esports program or computer lab.”

Common Sense examined seven of the most popular VR devices made by some of the biggest players in the tech world, including Meta, which also owns Facebook and Instagram; Microsoft; and Sony, which makes the PlayStation. Those devices make up nearly 100 percent of the market for VR, Kelly said.

VR headsets can collect so-called biometric data, including “really sensitive, really intimate data about your posture, eye gaze, what you’re looking at, pupil dilation, what you’re not looking at, your gestures, what you’re touching, what you’re interacting with , what you say, even as specific as minor variations in skin color or blushing.”

Girard Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer, Common Sense Media

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VR has great potential as a tool for teaching, learning and engagement, Kelly said. Thanks to this technology, students could soon experience learning in a hands-on way that previous generations had not imagined. They could take a field trip to ancient Greece, shrink down to microscopic size and explore the inside of a cell, or find themselves in the middle of a production of a Shakespeare play, all without leaving the classroom.

But at least for now, it can’t be done without potentially opening up valuable data to tech companies, Kelly said.

All the devices that common sense has examined in the report, released on November 15, show third-party ads. Privacy policies were often vague or implied that user data could be used for advertising or tracking purposes.

Additionally, the headsets lack special legal protections mandated for students under 13, who are subject to stricter federal privacy standards. And more than half of the devices had no parental controls, and some had no security settings at all.

While privacy is a consideration when purchasing any technology, the data collected through VR devices is particularly sensitive because it can go far beyond your name, age and location, Kelly said.

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VR headsets can collect so-called biometric data, including “really sensitive, really intimate data about your posture, eye gaze, what you’re looking at, pupil dilation, what you’re not looking at, your gestures, what you’re touching, what you’re interacting with , what you say, even as specific as slight variations in skin color or blushing,” Kelly said.

This kind of information provides clues as to what unnerves, excites or bores users, what resonates with them and what doesn’t. And the amount of data that can be collected is not trivial: After spending 30 minutes or more in the virtual world, users generate millions of data points, Kelly said.

“What [we] doing in these rich, immersive environments reveals our innermost thoughts and feelings,” said Kelly. This means that “what you do in VR could potentially be used to make you think positively about the brand or buy other products on other platforms.”

What’s more, some virtual reality applications – especially games – allow users to interact with strangers. “That opens up a lot of opportunities for inappropriate contact and exchanges” that can be harmful to children, Kelly said.

‘It certainly makes me pause’

The message in the report, Kelly said, is ultimately for the VR industry: “The industry needs to improve if we want these devices to have beneficial uses.”

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School district officials should “contact [VR] sellers, contact the manufacturer,” and advocate for stronger data privacy protections, Kelly said.

That resonates with Kyra Walker, instructional technology coordinator for Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, Virginia. Her district is sometimes interested in creating a VR lab. She currently has a limited number of headsets that are loaned to teachers who have received special permission to use specific programs, she said.

She is still excited about the learning potential of VR. However, he is still concerned that companies consider the protection of personal data a secondary concern.

Companies usually say, “We have this great product, and they’re pushing it,” Walker said. “Until consumers say, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing with my data? How do you collect it or sell it to someone?'”

Mary Teren, a middle school science teacher in Cobb County, Georgia, is considering VR after reading key points from the Common Sense report. She was hoping to get a grant to buy headphones.

“It definitely gives me pause,” she said. “I don’t know if I want the data to be there.” Our main task as educators is not only to educate, but to protect our children. The fact that [VR] it collects millions of data points in half an hour, it freaked me out. Is the risk of student data being collected, sold and used worth the reward of the experience?”


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