Zero Knowledge Proofs Can Save the Metaverse From Becoming a Dystopian Surveillance State
Bijan Shahroki argues that Big Tech will turn the metaverse into a surveillance state unless zero knowledge proofs are tapped to protect privacy.
By: Bijan Shahrokhi •Op-ed
When it comes to the metaverse, one thing is clear: Big tech players are aggressively trying to grab market share. It isn’t just Facebook’s corporate rebrand to Meta. There’s also moves by Epic, Roblox, Microsoft, and other players jockeying for supremacy in this emerging realm.
The big question many are asking is whether the metaverse in the hands of Big Tech will lead to a dystopian, surveillance-based digital future.
There is hope for an alternative — a digital universe that enables genuine connections between people and empowers us to address urgent issues. Sadly, the key ingredient we need is sorely missing from Big Tech’s repertoire: privacy.
Privacy in the Metaverse via Zero Knowledge
If people — not corporations — are going to write the rules of the metaverse, we need a secure and private way for people to prove they are who they say they are. This is where Zero Knowledge Proofs (ZKPs) come in.
You can think about ZKPs as a verification system that relies on cryptography to prove “a fact about me” without ever revealing sensitive information. For example, let’s say you need to possess certain superpowers to enter a particular realm within the metaverse (a world, a game, a group, an event) but you don’t want to reveal anything else about your identity to protect yourself from trolling, violation of your privacy, and other forms of abuse and discrimination.
The fact is, in order for the metaverse to meet its potential, we need to eliminate the need to trust anyone or anything with our private data.
A ZKP permits you to prove you have the rights or superpowers required to enter the realm without sharing anything else. You can join a group or event or digital location by showing that you possess the necessary credentials and remove subjectivity about yourself and your views by keeping your identity and the actual credential private. You are proving the authenticity of a fact without revealing the fact.
Apply this same process of proof-based verification for identity and personal information needed for facilitating virtual healthcare, social networks, financial inclusion, entertainment, education, and many other industries ripe for disruption by the metaverse. This is how we create a healthy society (and societies) in the metaverse based on rules and regulations that cannot be abused.
The Stakes Are High
The fact is, in order for the metaverse to meet its potential, we need to eliminate the need to trust anyone or anything with our private data. The nightmare version of an unhealthy digital world already exists. Under the domineering influence of Meta and the other Big Tech players, we must endure a surveillance economy that turns every aspect of our lives into data and monetizes it for clients. On the mild end of the spectrum, this data is used to sell us products. On the harmful side, this system scales up to perpetuate hate crimes and suppress freedoms and equality. It is destructive to society.
The Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder recently released a report investigating the causes and potential solutions to addressing the spread of the mis- and dis-information that is an indelible component of the surveillance economy. The report emphasizes that mis- and dis-information has become a matter of life and death. For example, a distrust of government, science, news media, and other institutions, has led to enormous misunderstandings around COVID risks, leading to hospitalizations and deaths.
A Safe Metaverse
The Commision also debunks the idea that the best way to address the spread of misinformation is by enabling better access to good information. A proliferation of good information is simply insufficient to overcome the crux of the problem: an incentive system that perpetuates information disorder over all else.
The report includes recommendations on what can be done to begin to address this societal failure, including focusing on public interest research, content moderation and disclosures, transparency, as well as establishing accountability norms and promoting healthy digital discourse. While these recommendations are certainly laudable, what we really need to do is build an infrastructure that will support a healthy and safe metaverse — and ZKPs are the only way to solve that.