Virtual reality (VR) is often associated with entertainment: With a VR headset, or even just a smartphone and folded cardboard glasses, you can enter the surroundings of your favorite video game world, or watch a movie as though sitting directly alongside the characters.
But the emerging technology has applications beyond just fun. It’s used in classrooms for virtual field trips. It’s used to train surgeons and astronauts. And it’s used for therapy and rehabilitation.
VR can be used for activism too. One example is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Spot the Surveillance project, which was created in 2018 to help people learn to detect mass surveillance technology in their neighborhoods and spark conversations about privacy.
In Spot the Surveillance, individuals use a VR headset to immerse themselves on a sunny San Francisco street corner. They can turn 360 degrees to fully examine the scene, and are prompted to spot surveillance technology that is embedded in the neighborhood.
Very quickly, users can uncover a range of surveillance devices. There is a PTZ camera mounted on a street light, which livestreams car and pedestrian traffic. There is an automated license plate reader that uploads all the information it captures to a searchable database.
There’s a mobile biometric device, which allows police to collect identifying data like fingerprints and iris scans. And up in the clouds, there’s a drone that at first glance looks like a bird.
In total, there are seven mass surveillance technologies on just one street corner. It only takes a few minutes to spot them all.
EFF Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass explains why EFF created the project: “We made our Spot the Surveillance VR tool to help people recognize these spying technologies around them and understand what their capabilities are.”
Of course, mass surveillance isn’t an unknown issue. For years, civil society and activists in the United States have sounded off on the dangers of law enforcement overreach, especially in communities of color.
VR provides an immersive window for those who feel far from the issue.
“One of our goals at EFF is to experiment with how emerging online technologies can help bring about awareness and change,” says EFF Web Developer Laura Schatzkin, who coded the project. “The issue of ubiquitous police surveillance was a perfect match for virtual reality. We hope that after being immersed in this digital experience users will acquire a new perspective on privacy that will stay with them when they remove the headset and go out into the real world.”