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Innovations in augmented and virtual reality present opportunities to unlock diplomacy. Nonetheless, cyber security risks to users remain. To realise the potential of the metaverse in international engagements, these risks must be identified and effectively mitigated.
Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the tech giant would rebrand as Meta and premiered its headline product, the Metaverse. But the concept of the metaverse is not the intellectual property of a single technology company. Originating in science fiction, the metaverse is an online , expansive and immersive extended reality. It relies on various technologies, such as VR to enable user access and blockchain to run and secure its digital infrastructures. Put simply, it is a 3D model of the internet experienced through a digital avatar. Touted as an inevitable next step, companies including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Tencent and Roblox hope to capitalise on the space, promising consumer and enterprise-level benefits across areas such as healthcare, commerce, music, education and gaming.
Keen to exploit the defence, security and economic opportunities of the metaverse, states are directly and indirectly scaling up their activities in the near-$800 billion market. As other advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum, continue to shape geopolitics, in what ways will the metaverse do the same? And what risks threaten the potential of the metaverse?
Lowering Barriers for International Cooperation
The coronavirus pandemic forced a shift from in-person international engagements to video conferencing. Participants who were customarily introduced by military band instead arrived to the dialling tones of Zoom and Teams. Video conferencing kept diplomacy ticking, but it was heavily critiqued, and it is clear that attendees were keen to get back to in-person summits.
Participant experience notwithstanding, the utility of remote interactions is clear. At minimal cost to countries’ coffers, international partners can engage frequently and at short notice. Reduced delegate travel also cuts the associated carbon footprint, and the ability to connect instantaneously is a boon for crisis response. For proof, look to the tour of parliaments conducted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He has achieved significant global impact while remaining in Kyiv. But can this tip the balance away from face-to-face events?
Disruptively, metaverse meetings do not provide the same presentational opportunity as a photograph outside the White House. In-person international engagements serve as an important signal of the strength and success of a government on the global stage; it is unlikely they will go away anytime soon.
Existing challenges to cyber security, privacy and safety, as well as geopolitical risks to an open and interoperable internet, will likely be transposed to the metaverse
It is doubtful whether high-level political engagements will shift to the metaverse. Nonetheless, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently holding a portion of the World Government Summit in the metaverse, there is a chance it could catch on. Yet, in all likelihood, working-level international engagements are better placed to make use of the opportunity.
Enabling International Collaboration
Routine collaboration between national security organisations can be better enabled through the metaverse.
A recent event run by the International Security Alliance (ISA), a 10-member international coalition of law enforcement professionals, utilised the metaverse to stage a three-day simulation. A global first, the event was part of Dubai Expo 2020, and saw 50 participants from nine countries including Israel, Senegal, France and the UAE tackle various threats. Working through Zoom, VR and an in-person space, specialist officers faced drone crashes, ransomware, and distributed denial of service attacks, all within the virtual city of ‘Brinia’. While organisers were uncertain what impact the event would have, early analysis from the organiser points to key successes.
Most importantly, metaverse usage was efficient. Exercises could be run in online simulations of environments usually too busy for real-world events, such as airports, and organisers could consistently monitor participants, building understanding of optimal joint-working processes. Crucially, participants were also able to engage informally throughout, reproducing in-person interactions. And, once devised and run for the first time, the cost of replicating and sharing the scenario via blockchain is minimal, allowing for reusability and iteration at low cost.
Additionally, the ISA event created a less gendered space. Male-dominated security and law enforcement agencies are often accused of sexism and misogyny. Female officers are reported to feel uncomfortable calling this out and are marginalised. During the event, one notable instance saw a junior female officer from the UAE become impromptu leader of a key witness interrogation, with over 30 other male officers deferring to her.
As the metaverse is still very much in its infancy, the extent and scale of risks to individual consumers, businesses and states are unknown. Nevertheless, existing challenges to cyber security, privacy and safety, as well as geopolitical risks to an open and interoperable internet, will likely be transposed to the metaverse.
Cyber Security and Data Privacy Risks
The cyber threat landscape is set to expand exponentially with the growing number of technologies that will be used to access the metaverse – from wearables to Internet of Things devices – all of which harvest huge amounts of user data.
If improperly regulated, the risks of engaging in this space could outweigh the benefits and stifle any long-term potential for better international engagement
Cyber attacks and espionage tactics are highly possible. Research has already pointed to potential security vulnerabilities in VR headsets, such as ‘face-mic attacks’. Moreover, avatar impersonation, where an attacker steals the virtual identity of a user, and man-in-the-room attacks, where an attacker silently infiltrates a virtual meeting, could have significant consequences, especially in tense diplomatic settings.
Online Safety Risks
By immersing the user in an amalgamated reality, the metaverse would also come with its own unique set of safety risks. More interactive terrorist and violent extremist content and misinformation are two examples of this. Additionally, fears of its use for sexual abuse have already been reinforced by recent revelations of sexual harassment in a beta version of Meta’s VR platform Horizon Worlds.
If improperly regulated, the risks of engaging in this space could outweigh the benefits and stifle any long-term potential for better international engagement. Online safety is rising on the agenda for policymakers, and there have already been calls to ensure the metaverse is built with safety in mind. The metaverse is likely to fall under the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill and the EU’s Digital Services Act, but it remains to be seen how effective these will be at dealing with the wide range of harms that could be engendered.
While the metaverse has the potential to bring people together, current divisions over internet governance could have the opposite effect. Existing geopolitical tensions and the increasing bifurcation of the internet would make the metaverse less open and interoperable and, in turn, less conducive to international engagement. Authoritarian countries, already balkanising the internet in pursuit of greater control, could take a similar approach to their metaverses. Instead of one global metaverse, divisions could result in several bordered and only partially interoperable metaverses.
With powerful states investing in their own metaverse initiatives, market dominance in the supply of metaverse infrastructure and technologies could be leveraged for national interest and values promotion. As China invests heavily, there is a concern similar to with 5G infrastructures that a Chinese metaverse could act as a proxy for Beijing’s foreign policy objectives.
By better integrating the metaverse into international collaboration and cooperation, the benefits of the technology can be realised. Early adopters who recognise opportunities while mitigating risks will be the most successful. As with the internet pre-World Wide Web, it is hard to judge just how impactful the metaverse will be, but scepticism should not become pessimism. Governments and businesses must innovate to put their best virtual foot forward, or risk getting stuck on standby.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Former Research Analyst