How Safe Is The Metaverse?

24 Feb 2022

As Facebook rebrands to Meta, our cyber experts explore how safe the metaverse it aims to bring to life really is.

At the end of October 2021, Facebook introduced Meta, which will bring together all Facebook’s apps and technologies under one new company brand. Since the announcement, the ‘metaverse’ concept has found itself firmly in the spotlight.

Meta’s focus is to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses. But what really is a metaverse – and should we have concerns about its safety and security?

What is the metaverse?

The term ‘metaverse’ was coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, in which he pre-empted the development of 3D avatars in virtual environments. The dictionary defines ‘metaverse’ as: ‘a proposed version of the internet that incorporates three-dimensional virtual environments: or, a three-dimensional virtual world, especially in an online role-playing game.’

The way ‘metaverse’ has been interpreted since Facebook’s introduction of the term very much builds on Stephenson’s original use of it. The media have labelled the metaverse as a new social media dimension, a futuristic reimagining of social media, through which digital technology will enable a 3D space where people can interact. Mark Zuckerberg himself describes the metaverse as an immersive platform in which users can do almost anything from meeting friends and family, to working, learning, and shopping. According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will also offer new technological experiences that don’t fit our current conceptions of how we use computers or phones currently.

However, despite all the explanations given, visualising the metaverse in today’s world remains a complex task as it doesn’t exist in itself yet. As cybersecurity and global digital policy expert Kristina Podnar explains it, the metaverse remains a concept whose main idea is to create a digital world that incorporates real world dimensions.

With that in mind, it should be asked to what extent the metaverse will offer an unparalleled opportunity for innovative, exciting new digital experiences – or whether it will simply be a chance for companies to seek more market power while industrialising data abuse and privacy infringement.

New opportunities?

Meta argues the metaverse technology will allow users to do things they can’t do in the physical world: to share immersive experiences with other people even when they can’t be together; to benefit from more opportunities no matter where they live, and so on

Companies in the video games, fashion, music and tourism industries agree the metaverse will open up new economic and cultural opportunities which have been unexplored thus far. This was the case with the game-concert performance ‘Astronomical‘ delivered by Travis Scott on Fortnite back in April 2020. The virtual concert drew over 12 million players for a less than 10 minute show. The event was described as unlike anything users could ever possibly hope to experience in real life.

But we may also use the metaverse on a more day-to-day basis, and with the rise of hybrid and remote working, the metaverse could also offer the opportunity to redefine the way people work. Through the metaverse, employees will be given the opportunities to improve workplace communication and interaction while working remotely.

Travelling and visiting far-away places will become more accessible. Healthcare and education will be more easily accessible for remote populations. By using a combination of virtual and augmented reality to create an extended reality, medical education, for example, can be transformed from a one way information flow of theory to an interactive digital simulation where instrument and dexterity skills can be mastered. The list of benefits the metaverse could provide is extensive. 

Safety, security and privacy concerns

So far, the metaverse appears to be offer us numerous benefits, such as attending a virtual concert, being able to work virtually in a 3D environment with our colleagues or travelling to the other side of the globe from your own couch. However, as with all new technologies, we must make this shift carefully and think of all the ramifications developing and embracing this new technology entail.

Firstly, it is essential to know that the metaverse is built on the constant use of hyper-realistic 3D avatars which is essential to its effective functioning. Such a systematic use of avatars raises security and privacy questions. When interacting with an avatar, how can we know who is really behind it? Do users have to look like their avatars, or can they reinvent themselves completely? These are significant identity authentication and verification challenges that need to be addressed. Although anonymity and freedom are essential, there needs to be identification capabilities by delegated entities in place in the metaverse. Such a checks and balances mechanism will ensure the safety and privacy of the metaverse’s users.

Privacy and data security will also be crucial issues to focus on, given the potentially large quantity of sensitive personal information that could be commercialised and used in the metaverse. It is legitimate to ask how Meta and other companies will manage users’ data created within this virtual world, who will be tasked to handle this data and for what purpose.

There is a rising concern that the metaverse will only be another virtual environment in which users’ data will be misused and abused. This raises the question of existing security systems and whether they are designed to keep pace with the data and security issues in the metaverse. By virtue of its uniqueness, the metaverse is an environment that will necessarily require unique and distinct security solutions to ensure the protection of its users’ data and privacy. As such, this gives rise to the question on how someone can ensure the integrity of metaverse users, their avatars and the data behind it all.

Finally, trademark and copyright infringements in the buying and selling of items in the metaverse may be difficult to police and thus become a growing issue for content owners. Companies such as Nike have already filed trademarks applications, thus preventing metaverse’s users from using the brands in an unlicensed way. Because of its novelty, the metaverse remains for the most part an unexplored environment. As a consequence, identifying and locating trademark and copyright infringers in this virtual universe seems to be a significant challenge which will require innovative and advanced investigation methods.

Overall, although the metaverse represents new and exciting opportunities for the future, it is essential to keep in mind that the creation and development of such a virtual environment will raise significant legal, ethical and security challenges – which will inevitably keep on growing the more people begin to interact with the platform.

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