Apple has a reputation for being one of the most privacy-minded tech companies, but with its new $3,499 Vision Pro it might just have built the ultimate surveillance machine.
The mixed-reality headset, available for purchase from February 2nd, has been eagerly anticipated by geeks – or rich ones at least. Well, it is Apple, after all – and the tech titan’s first new flagship product in almost a decade seems destined to outscore its Meta Quest rival in every department.
But the potential game-changer for this new spatial computing era, where digital and physical worlds meet, might also turn out to be a privacy nightmare.
The loneliest experience
The ambition is enormous – again, it’s Apple. The Vision Pro will feature loads of 3D movies, streaming services like Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video, an advanced Spatial Audio system.
The Apple TV app – needed for using the headset – also features the Cinema Environment, enabling viewers to transform any space into a personal theater, where users will invoke the controls with their eyes, hands, or voice.
Ads show people wearing the Vision Pro all the time – at work, at home, in bed, outside. A bit weird, because the device supports two hours of general use unless the battery is connected to a power source with a charging cable.
But OK. Let’s presume users will want to use the headset all the time and in public, too – say, just for fun while walking to work and using the Maps feature. That’s a problem.
Why? Let’s start with the definition of spatial computing. It’s essentially running apps all around you – when you wear the headset, you see both the real world and the computer-generated images with information superimposed on top.
It’s pretty much the loneliest tech experience ever: literally no one around you sees what you see, and the device will surely mess up your hair or makeup when you clamp it to your head. But it’s worth it because it’s oh so cool, right?
Well, let’s look at the numbers. The Vision Pro goggles contain the rough equivalent of a head full of iPhones: there are two depth sensors, 12 cameras, and six microphones. All this is constantly scanning and tracking every movement you or people around you make.
Maybe you’re perfectly fine with the Vision Pro registering every flick of your eyeballs and then selling the precious data to ecstatic advertisers. Maybe you’re OK with the headset mapping your home and the possibility of the data somehow reaching some bad actors.
I’m not. Privacy should still matter – especially to Apple, a company that spent years building up a reputation for protecting its customers’ confidentiality but is now releasing a product bound to collect even the most intimate details of their lives.
An inevitable trade-off
To be fair, Apple has done things to address privacy concerns with regards to its new showpiece, and that’s commendable.
Yes, the Vision Pro uses four eye-tracking cameras and a set of invisible wavelength LEDs to scan the uniqueness of a user’s iris. All this combines into Optic ID, which is used to unlock the device and authorize various actions such as Apple Pay payments.
But Apple says Optic ID is encrypted, never leaves the device, and is only accessible by the Secure Enclave processor – a separate area on the microchip, solely designed to process sensitive data like biometrics.
Besides, all camera and sensor data processing happens without sending sensitive data to servers or the cloud – this, of course, reduces the risk of data exposure.
Eye-tracking data is private, the tech giant insists: “Eye input is not shared with Apple, third-party apps, or websites. Only your final selections are transmitted when you tap your fingers together.”
Finally, Apple is not allowing third-party Vision Pro apps to access the camera to capture photos and videos. At least in theory, this would prevent third-party apps from, say, running facial recognition algorithms on people.
This is very good. But the problem – I think – is that body-based data and the collection of such data is necessary for spatial computing to simply function.
In other words, if one wants technologies to be more immersive and usable, one needs to give away more sensitive information. Apple needs to know behind-the-scenes stuff to make magic happen.
Of course, if one does, it’s clear that the technology offers accessibility benefits. But it’s also obvious that companies are interested in using, for instance, eye tracking to engage in attention monitoring, behavioral analysis and, yes, advertising. This can be intrusive.
Already back in 2020 when the Vision Pro was still being developed, a research paper succinctly argued: “Through the lens of advanced data analytics, gaze patterns can reveal much more information than a user wishes and expects to give away.”
Deeply invasive – do we care?
I have to come back to the fact that it’s Apple – even though years ago, at the height of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, the idea of selling a device that scanned your retinas would have seemed deeply invasive, Apple can successfully pitch it because it has consistently maintained its reputation for privacy.
However, according to Bloomberg, Apple is also quietly building a bigger targeted advertising business. And that’s fishy – the data may not be shared with third parties but it is still in the company’s enormous system. What if it is breached?
And what do we not know? If Apple is expanding its ad business, there must be a reason for this, and the Vision Pro’s capabilities would surely allow data brokers and advertisers who build profiles of customers to do it better.
As The Washington Post recently pointed out, the device might register that you have a large-screen TV and thus suggest you might have more money to spend than someone with a smaller set, for instance. Governments or law enforcement might see something else.
Do we want that as an extra to eye tracking? Again, I don’t. To be honest, I’m not at all interested in strapping a computer to my face, especially one that tells others I’m a dumb geek with money to burn – but the idea behind it also strikes me as being very intrusive.
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