Virtual reality headsets may be the next frontier in immersive entertainment, but the cutting-edge technology could also be the next frontier of privacy issues with a new way to secretly record people.

Some commentators are celebrating the new Apple Vision Pro headset for offering an immersive experience that’s the best in the market so far and a “startling glimpse of the future.” The device is built with a litany of sensors and cameras that track the users’ eyes and gestures, but also the world around them with front-facing cameras.

These cameras can record video, just like a smartphone. But unlike a smartphone, Apple and Meta (the makers of the Meta Quest 3) built a constant visual cue into the device to tell the people around the wearer they are being recorded. With the Vision Pro, the headset’s front screen flashes white continuously while recording. In contrast, when the user is in an immersive app, the front of the device turns blue. With the Meta Quest 3, one of the lights on the front of the device blinks when the front-facing cameras are recording.

The relatively niche gadgets are becoming more mainstream, but the public might not fully know how the devices’ built-in privacy measures work. Apple and Meta’s efforts at transparency and safety are laudable - it’s a visual clue to bystanders that they are being recorded - but there may still be issues with using the technology in some places.

A person can be charged with the crime of voyeurism in Canada if they secretly observe or record another person who has a reasonable expectation of privacy when, A. The other person is in a “safe place,” B. The other person is nude or having sex, or C. If the person doing the recording is recording for a sexual purpose.

In the 2023 case R v Downes, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Canada’s Criminal Code defines some places as “safe places,” where people should be free from privacy intrusions. “Safe places” include places like bedrooms, bathrooms and change rooms. It doesn’t matter if the person is nude or could be expected to be nude, someone should never secretly record them there.

This could be a problem for people using the Apple Vision Pro, or any other VR headset, in a “safe place” — like a shared bedroom. Nefarious users could take advantage of new VR headsets’ capabilities to commit voyeurism.

Both Apple and Meta’s headsets tell bystanders when VR devices around them are recording, but the issue is that this isn’t a well-known feature. In 2024 it’s relatively common knowledge that when a smartphone is pointed at you it could be recording. But a headset? Likely not — even with the built-in safety features. A person who wants to record using their headset secretly might be able to take advantage of the lack of public VR knowledge. For the general public, it’s yet another digital device to be mindful of.

The technology is not nearly as common as a smartphone due to, among other reasons, its high price. The Apple Vision Pro costs approximately $4,800 in Canada and the Meta Quest 3 retails for $650. The technology is so new and niche that many people might not realize they are being recorded on headsets.

There is also the issue that bystanders may believe the person wearing the headset can’t see them. Headsets are most often used to explicitly shut out the outside world and ensure you can’t see it. For example, early VR headsets such as Google Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR were completely opaque to the outside world. This isn’t always the case with more modern devices.

The Apple Vision Pro’s Eyesight feature allows the person wearing the headset to see into the real world in front of them through a video feed on the inside of the device. To the person wearing the headset, it looks like the app windows are floating in front of them as they are superimposed on top of the video feed. It lets the wearer use the augmented reality capabilities of the headset while still being aware of what’s happening around them.

In 2023, there were estimated to be approximately 171 million VR users worldwide, according to VR developer Draw and Code. For comparison, in 1998 an estimated 188 million people used the internet worldwide. VR is at a similar inflection point as the Internet was in the late 1990s. The time is ripe for to protect non-users from harm.

It’s not an impossible issue to fix. For example, the Apple Vision Pro has a full screen on the outside of the device — why not have the word “recording” display on it while the device is taking a video? Or with the Meta Quest 3, it could have a dedicated light to informing bystanders they are being recorded. These steps could go a long way to improving safety in a way that is obvious and clear to everyone around the person wearing the headset.