‘Tilt Brush’ Deep Dive + Unanswered Questions about VR Privacy & Google

Voices of VR Podcast – Episode #507

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egmorantTilt Brush is Google’s first VR app to launch on the Oculus Rift, and I had a chance to catch up with Tilt Brush product manager Elisabeth Morant. We have a broad discussion about adapting Tilt Brush for the Touch controllers, the Tilt Brush Artist in Residency Program, the Tiltbrush Unity Toolkit, and some of the features coming in the future potentially including a layering system and more non-intuitive and unexpected features similar to audio reactive brushes. I also asked about privacy in VR, but Google has yet to disclose any information about what information they may or may not be capturing from VR users.

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Some of the most newsworthy parts about my interview with Morant were regarding things that weren’t talked about. When asked to comment about this being the first VR collaboration between Facebook & Google, Morant said that Google is “really looking to push virtual reality as a platform.” There’s been a tense history between Google and Facebook, and releasing Tilt Brush via Oculus Home is the first collaboration in the VR space that we’ve seen from the two tech giants.

This also means that it’s the first Google app that’s being released within the context of Oculus’ Privacy policy, which states that physical movements can be recorded and tied back to your Facebook profile. Facebook will be able to capture and store physical movements of users who are using Google’s application, and then this data could be connected to a unified Facebook super profile that pulls in data from third parties. Up to this point Google hasn’t made any VR-specific updates to their Privacy policy that explicitly accounts for what may or may not be recorded in VR and then connected back to your Google profile.

I asked Morant about this overlapping privacy policy dynamic between Google and Facebook during my interview, and Google’s PR liaison said that we could follow up after the interview for more information. I did follow up after the interview, and Google is indeed looking at the possibility of updating their privacy policy by saying “it is something that we are looking at, but nothing to share at this time.”

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But Google dodged answering about what they may or may not already be recording in VR, again. I previously asked a follow-up question about what data they’re capturing in my previous interview about Google Earth VR, but I received a generic boilerplate answer. When I asked again, they basically sent back the same non-answer.

Non-answers to hard to write about and cover, and so they usually serve the purpose of not talking about it. But it also reinforces the impression that privacy in VR is the big elephant in the room that no one wants to really talk about. So I maintained the integrity of my original questions within the context of the podcast interview, and I’ve also included the full context of my follow-up exchange with Google PR below.

Me:

I just had a follow-up question about privacy with some reference material. I’d love to get some more specific answers from a privacy expert on your side, and swap that more detailed information to put at the end within my wrap-up. If there’s someone there who I could speak to directly, then that would be preferable. A written response also works, but not quite as well within the podcast medium because I end up having to speak words on your behalf.

At this moment, Google’s Privacy policy does not have any language that is specific for any virtual reality technologies, and there are no controls for VR data that might be recorded listed within the “My Account” Privacy dashboard.

My question: Is any physical movement data of either the head or hands from in any VR experiences being recorded and saved by Google?

Oculus’ Privacy Policy states that “Information about your physical movements and dimensions when you use a virtual reality headset” are being captured and stored as part of the “Information Automatically Collected About You When You Use Our Services.”

In my previous interview about Google Earth VR, I followed up with some questions about privacy and you sent back a prepared statement that I included within both my written and spoken write-up. Here’s that passage:

Google Earth VR is a free application for the Vive on Steam VR, and so I had a couple of follow up questions for Google after my interview. I asked them: “What kind of data can and cannot be collected given Google’s standard Privacy Policy within a VR experience?” and “Are there long-term plans to evolve Google’s Privacy Policy given how VR represents the ability to passively capture more and more intimate biometric data & behavioral data?”

Google:

Our users trust us with their information and we outline how it may be used across Google — to personalize experiences, to improve products, and more — in our Privacy policy. Users can control the information they share with Google in ‘My Account’.”

Me:

Google’s previous response didn’t actually really directly answer my question. Google’s Privacy policy does not have any language that is specific for any virtual reality technologies, and there are no controls for VR data that might be recorded listed within the My Account Privacy dashboard.

• Does this mean that no virtual reality specific data is being recorded or captured from Google?
• Or if there is data being collected from VR, will we see an update to Google’s Privacy Policy that discloses what is being recorded?

For more context, here’s an interview and essay that I did with a privacy expert since the last time I spoke with Google.

Thanks for willing to take a look at this, and I look forward to getting some more specific answers than Elisabeth was able to provide.

Google:

We don’t have a privacy expert available for you to speak to for the podcast. In regards to your question about an updated privacy policy – it is something that we are looking at, but nothing to share at this time. As soon as we have any updates, we’ll let you know. The statement we provided before still applies:

“Our users trust us with their information and we outline how it may be used across Google — to personalize experiences, to improve products, and more — in our Privacy policy. Users can control the information they share with Google in ‘My Account’.”

Google is looking to potentially update their privacy policy with more information about what is or isn’t recorded, but up to this point they haven’t disclosed any information about what they’re capturing. There’s been no updates to the Privacy policy to account for any new VR technologies, and there’s no VR data available through the ‘My Account’ tab on your Google account.

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I’ve asked Google twice now what data they’re recording, and both times they’ve avoided answering with a direct answer. Privacy in VR is a hard topic to cover, especially when the major players don’t really want to talk about it. I wrote extensively in this article about the privacy implications of VR and how VR has the potential to become on of the most powerful surveillance technologies or the last bastion of privacy depending on the types of user demands are placed upon the systems that are built. Sarah Downey argues against companies capturing too much data and storing it forever, and so it’s important for companies to have transparency about what they’re doing.

Google appears to be failing on the privacy transparency front by avoiding answering simple questions. What data are you recording in VR? Is it being tied back to personally identifiable information? And if so, then when can we see updates to the privacy policy to reflect that? These seemingly simple policies will one day be very important if VR takes off like the industry hopes and expects.


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  • NooYawker

    Translation: every move you make is being recorded.

  • psuedonymous

    Valve’s Privacy Policy (http://store.steampowered.com/privacy_agreement/) likewise lacks any explicit mention of the collection and use of tracking data, anonymised or otherwise.

  • NooYawker

    I’m a little surprised and dismayed no one cares about their privacy.

    • Yes, this is something that Kent really focuses on and is great to see someone asking those questions and not backing off. We sleepwalk into our future…

  • Anyone know what 3D engine Tilt Brush is built on? Really interested on the challenges of dynamic geometry creation and VR framerate issues touched on in the podcast at about 16:30. What patterns are being used to add create and add geometry to the rendering pipline? Any Tilt Brush engineers reading this that could weight in either in the comments or as a direct reply?