Playing it Safe in the Metaverse: Cyber Security Challenges in VR

The emergence of the metaverse ecosystem has been a long time in the making. Many of us have watched films that set out dystopian visions of augmented or immersive virtual reality worlds where people work, live, and play out their lives – while evil corporations or AI powered machines seek to dominate, subjugate or manipulate digital reality for nefarious purposes.

For some 30 years or more, science fiction writers have been giving us prescient visions of virtual worlds to come. Worlds where people use VR-like goggles, headsets, or full body suits to connect and interact as avatars within digital landscapes where the constraints of the physical world melt away.

Meanwhile, the technological building blocks that will potentially make the metaverse an achievable reality have already begun to usher in transformative new digital capabilities. From digital twins to powerful new VR training simulations, how we connect and interact with the internet is changing fast.

Unsurprisingly, big tech giants like Meta and Microsoft are eagerly staking their claim in this brave new 3D online world, where digital and physical experiences merge in truly innovative ways.

With all to play for, big brand names like Nike, Gucci and Disney are already leveraging metaverse platforms and novel technological innovations in a bid to transcend competitors, build new digital assets, sell virtual goods, and overcome geographic boundaries with digitally exclusive experiences and offerings.

However, organisations looking to dip their toe into this potentially vast and still developing landscape will need to navigate some tricky real-world cyber security challenges on the horizon.

Dealing with online security realities

With all the hype and shiny new digital gizmos to contend with it’s all too easy for organisations to lose sight of the fact that, whatever the nature of their planned metaverse application or project, security will need to be baked in from day one and not a bolt-on consideration after the fact.

Today’s massive online multiplayer gaming platforms have become a top target for cybercriminals intent on stealing the credentials and sensitive personal information of players. But the metaverse potentially opens the door to a much wider field of opportunity.

As yet, we have little to no idea how criminals will look to exploit the virtual and augmented reality of the metaverse. But it’s a certainty that maintaining control of your online identity will prove a more challenging prospect for users who will face an elevated risk of extortion or impersonation unless appropriate security and privacy protections are in place.

Similarly, enterprises looking to leverage the metaverse to enhance their virtual recruitment and HR programmes or to undertake virtual 3D site visits and client meetings will need to be prepared to think through some tricky security issues.

The metaverse is less about new technology, and more about combining existing technologies in new and experimental ways. Which means potentially unanticipated security gaps are likely to arise. Organisations would do well to keep in mind the security issues many of today’s biggest social platforms encountered during their formative years.

Dealing with virtual criminality

A recent report by the Europol Innovation Lab warns that police and law enforcement agencies will need to prepare for the metaverse.

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Highlighting how the growing use of sensors, face tracking and haptics means that criminals will be able to steal identities to manipulate others or impersonate people even more convincingly, the report also examines how real-life harassment and abuse could transpose into new virtual crimes and transgressions.

Indeed, concerns are already riding high about how scammers could exploit the metaverse to extort money and information from users as new platform-specific cryptocurrencies emerge. The loss and theft of these digital assets represents a very real threat that will have life-changing implications for those that fall victim.

Indeed, the growing prevalence of NFT scams, thefts and ransomware attacks has already garnered widespread press coverage. Victims of so called ‘rug-pull’ and bidding scams who’ve been duped into buying non-existent NFT goods – or whose NFT assets are stolen by criminals – have little recourse when it comes to reclaiming money or reporting these types of crimes, because no one as yet ‘owns’ policing the metaverse.

Building safeguarding and data security in from the start will be a must have for organisations looking to foster long term user trust and bolster brand reputations.

The wild, wild west – how secure is the metaverse?

The increasing digitalisation of our personal and working lives has led to nation states preparing new digital and internet privacy laws that place greater responsibility on service and platform providers to protect users.

Despite the global nature of the nascent metaverse, there are as yet no universally agreed upon regulatory controls. So establishing jurisdictions and management will be a tough call, and users who fall foul of crime in the metaverse risk being hostages of fortune as long as the lack of properly enforceable regulations prevails.

Concerns are already growing about how major tech companies look set to dominate the metaverse environment and, as a consequence, will be privy to a lot more data about users – everything from their biometrics and digital payments to their VR healthcare and workplace experiences.

As nation states strive to hold big tech and social media platforms accountable for the safety and wellbeing of minors and managing their access to content, legislators are already preparing to grapple with the complex legal and regulatory challenges that lie ahead.

From digital security and privacy to questions of intellectual property, digital theft, and identity, the metaverse is set to throw up a host of additional privacy concerns and security issues that will need to be addressed.

While it will still take significant investment by tech companies and others to turn metaverse hype into reality, one thing is for sure. It won’t be too long before something compelling for the mass market emerges. Those organisations looking to get off the starting blocks fast in the metaverse economy will need to engage early with all potential cyber security implications and do their utmost to minimise risks for users.

Cyber Security Assurance Technical Director at 

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