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The Metaverse, an opportunity for society or terrorism?

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Challenges in the field of prevention

Source: Government Technology Insider

1. Introduction


Nowadays, the world is moving at an unprecedented speed. Information is transmitted, exchanged, and recorded through a dense network woven by approximately five billion people. In telecommunications, for instance, technological evolution has made possible the transition from the mere transmission of voice via telephone to videoconferencing, in which social presence and spatial awareness are simultaneously shared in the same synthetic environment. More broadly, the acceleration in technological development - undoubtedly supported by restrictions on physical interaction due to the pandemic context - has allowed the large-scale diffusion of both Internet connection and tools that, used together, allow to go further by simulating a potentially infinite set of parallel worlds in which people can move through virtual alter egos (avatars): the Metaverse.


Among the users of this still undefined cosmos, the most represented age segment is the preadolescent and adolescent one, which corresponds to the most sensitive portion of the population to extremist narratives.


Considering the wide and proven use by terrorist organizations of web platforms and social networks to spread their propaganda, carry out terrorist financing activities, and recruit new followers, this analysis, after having framed in detail the concept of Metaverse and its declinations, aims to outline the vulnerabilities related to the risk of radicalization, financing, recruitment and use of this universe by the above-mentioned organizations and to identify the most significant measures to be taken to curb the threat.


2. What is the Metaverse?

Figure 1 – Virtual reality (source: Beacon)

The term, resulting from the crasis between the prefix “meta” (transcendent), and the word “universe”, first appeared in 1992 in “Snow Crash”, a fantasy novel written by Neal Stephenson, invented to name the virtual world in which the protagonist's avatar moves. The Metaverse, considered to be the next iteration of the internet, is a network of interconnected experiences and applications, devices and products, tools and infrastructure. More specifically, the Metaverse refers to an immersive version of virtual reality composed of a network of always-on synthetic environments, parallel to and integrated with the physical world. In it, users, through their avatars, can interact with each other and with digital objects and move from one virtual environment to another, experiencing heterogeneous activities in real-time, as in a sort of alternative life, parallel to the physical one[1].


3. Levels of integration between physical and virtual reality


The integration between physical and virtual reality is allowed by different technologies that provide various degrees of human involvement in the synthetic dimension, that are:

  • Augmented Reality (AR), a combination of synthetic and physical reality in which users can move in a real-world improved by virtual data that allow them to have extra information, useful for carrying out complex tasks;

  • Mixed Reality (MR), where the environment in which people move is a combination of the real and the virtual;

  • Virtual Reality (VR), in which users enter a completely virtual dimension by using an avatar, through which they can experience an alternative life in a dimension that reproduces, replaces, and enhances the real world (Figure 2).

By wearing electronic devices, people will be able to enter, move, socialize and work in spaces where boundaries between digital and physical become permeable.

Figure 2: Levels of integration between reality and cyberspace (source: Robert J. Bunker for UNOCT)

4. Roots of the Metaverse: the gaming sector


According to Aaron Bush, the primary driver of the investments in networks and graphics technologies that today enable access to and development of the Metaverse has been the broad appeal associated with gaming. Indeed, the latest data report that one in three people is a videogame user, for a total of over 3 billion consumers constantly looking for more realistic and immersive experiences. To increase the already strong appeal of this sector, two other factors have occurred: the decentralized networks and the new crypto-economic systems, considered enablers of the dissemination of video games, and the change in perception of virtual goods.


Figure 3: World Population, Internet Users, Gamers (Fonte: Naavik)

Considering the close link of this business with the development of tools that define the Metaverse, it is possible to say that, although it is quite early envisaging transition, thanks to the ever-improving user experience and the progressive reduction of technological tools’ costs, more and more individuals will be pushed to spend an increasing amount of time in these virtual worlds.


Moreover, restrictions related to the COVID-19 epidemic have further accelerated this phenomenon by boosting the global population's accessibility to the internet, the amount of time per capita spent online, and the size of the online economy. Given this new configuration, it is also intuitive to understand the rising interest in advancing the Metaverse, pushing it from an embryonic stage to its full development[2].


Such interest was confirmed by Mark Zuckerberg in October 2021, when he announced the change of his company's name from “Facebook” to “Meta” (short for “Metaverse”).


Just before that announcement, Zuckerberg invested 50 million Dollars in a two-year research project called "XR Programs and Research Fund" that, through collaboration with industry partners, civil rights groups, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions, is targeting the creation of this new dimension, which the company itself estimates will reach completion within the next 10 - 15 years.

5. What will the Metaverse look like?

Figure 4: Picture from Steven Spielberg's “Ready Player One” movie (2018).

Today, the Metaverse is in its beginning phase. In fact, although it can be perceived as coming to the surface, the development of such a project still requires major technical improvements, policy reforms, and radical changes in customers’ behavior[3].


In an attempt to frame what still appears to be a fuzzy idea, Matthew Ball has identified seven fundamental properties that the Metaverse is expected to possess. It will be:

  1. Persistent: regardless of whether users remain on the platform, it will not be possible to reset, pause, or end it. It will be an entity that continues indefinitely, in which subjects, whether individuals, groups, or organizations, will be able to evolve over time without risk of disappearing3

  2. Synchronous and live: will be an experience that exists continuously for all its users and regardless of them, consistently and concurrently.

  3. Extremely social: through a reshaping of interaction patterns, it will be possible to transcend space, and share environments and a sense of presence with others.

  4. A fully functioning economy, fertile and scalable: individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded (in cryptocurrency) for an incredibly wide range of activities.

  5. A bridge between different worlds: it will be a diaphragm that connects the digital world with the physical one, expanding the volume of the virtual universe through the introduction of the third dimension. This will make it possible to overcome the current passage from one website to another via a hyperlink, replacing it with a leap from one 3D world to another.

  6. Highly interoperable: data, assets, content, etc. can be transported between different virtual realities without restrictions.

  7. Rich in contents: contents and experiences will no longer be generated by specific individuals, rather by a large and heterogeneous number of contributors, including independent individuals, informal groups, or commercial enterprises.

Beyond Ball's forecasts, a series of uncertainties remain concerning the future shape of the Metaverse. The lack of certainty regarding the evolutionary trajectory of the metaverse results in the impossibility of setting up a mechanism of regulation and control for securing this new dimension; this in turn implies the chance of adopting criminal behavior in it without incurring any consequence.


6. Threats from the Metaverse

Figure 5: From gaming to radicalization (Source: Istituto Italiano di Studi Strategici Niccolò Machiavelli)
Considering our research on malevolent creativity and innovation, there is potential for the metaverse to become a new domain for terrorist activity.” – S.T. Hunter, et al.

Technological progress and the speed of digital tools diffusion, accelerated by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, have radically changed interaction patterns among individuals, fostering the growth of online communication systems, regardless of subjects' location. Despite the national and supranational bodies’ efforts to raise levels of cyber security, the cross-border nature of cyberspace and the continuous emergence of new spaces of interaction inevitably generate a regulatory vacuum that leaves freedom of action to crime, facilitated not only by physiological deregulation but also by increasingly complex technologies ensuring anonymity and non-traceability.


As the Metaverse develops, this problem will necessarily expand in scale. For this reason, UNOCT attempted to identify the most significant vulnerabilities in the gaming sector, where the Metaverse's most advanced manifestation has been detected, that terrorist organizations could exploit to finance, manage and spread their international networks, as well as train radicalized individuals:

  • Lack of supervision: today's gaming platforms are not controlled in the same way that, for instance, social media are;

  • Persistence of anonymity, which makes gaming platforms the ideal environment for the spread of violent extremist propaganda;

  • Combat Training: online games are ideal platforms for combat training which, psychologically, induces individuals to lack empathy and to develop de-sensitization issues, making them more prone to radicalization and violence;

  • Possibility of terrorist financing via cryptocurrencies: given the wide use of cryptocurrencies, these platforms can be an excellent base for money laundering and terrorist financing[4].

7. How terrorism can exploit the Metaverse


Terrorism, which already uses the cyber dimension extensively for its activities, could exploit the immersive nature of these new spaces to enhance its effectiveness. According to researchers at the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center in Omaha, the Metaverse, though still under construction, already presents some challenges, and its evolutionary trajectory suggests potential new persuasive and coercive methods that extremists could use to exert their influence. Three main ways in which the metaverse will complicate efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism have been identified:

  • Recruitment: online recruitment is an established trait of modern extremism. The Metaverse threatens to expand this threat: at present, the internet is mostly used for the dissemination of ideological material, but soon extremist leaders will have more effective means to train and influence virtual communities, expanding support for extremist narratives through immersive experiential modes that are powerful and difficult to crush;

  • Coordination: the Metaverse offers innovative methods for coordinating, planning, and executing terrorist acts. For example, from any physical location and through avatars that would conceal their real identity, extremist leaders could create virtual representations of any physical building, which would allow them to guide members through routes leading to key targets, coordinate alternate routes, and establish emergency plans. This approach coincides with the one adopted by military forces around the world, which consider virtual training to be effective and efficient, both economically and in terms of containing operational risks[5];

  • New objectives: the risk of damaging structures, sabotaging events and people's safety exists also in the virtual world and has consequences in the physical one. For instance, the psychological impact that a reproduction of the Twin Towers collapse could have during a 9/11 commemoration, though in the Metaverse, could be very powerful, as could swastikas and anti-Semitic writings on a synagogue wall. Also, there is the possibility to learn to use weaponry, as in the case of Second Life, already criticized in 2007 by the newspaper “The Australian” for the presence of weapons such as AK47, and, among its users, three jihadist terrorists and two jihadist terrorist groups that could have recruited and trained individuals within the game[6]. Besides, it is necessary to underline that through exchange systems in cryptocurrency, deep integration between digital and real economy has been created, therefore users who invest in the virtual universe face the risk of losing real resources: the destruction of a business in a virtual space is equal to a real financial loss.

In short, a second universe is emerging, socially and economically connected to the physical world, but legally independent from it, in which at present there are no identities, no boundaries, no rules, and no control systems.


Although it is undeniable that the concept of the Metaverse contains enormous potential for human progress, it should not be neglected that its growth is opening up new vulnerabilities and just as many opportunities to exploit them.


8. A present and concrete danger


In 2011, James Cole conducted research to explore the ways in which virtual worlds - where the subject tends to feel more easily part of a larger community but without the burdens of ethical, cultural, or social norms - can be exploited to radicalize the most fragile individuals. Through the creation of an avatar, the author was able to visit several destinations on Second Life, with the aim of examining that universe from the extremist perspective, assessing its potential for radicalization.


During his research, Cole observed the existence of places where radical views of Islamic law and culture were freely promoted (figure 6), and books of authors banned in some countries due to their extremist and anti-human rights views were offered.

Figure 6 – Ummah of Noor Island, Second Life (source: J. Cole)

Already in 2011, Cole had shown the great potential for thought influence existing in these dimensions: the power of images, sounds, and 3D can easily persuade individuals to embrace sectarian positions and believe that violent action is the only way to promote an extremist cause.


The sheer volume of freely accessible propaganda material, immersivity, and dynamism offered by these virtual worlds define a perfect habitat for radicalization. Moreover, the anonymity and the opportunity to exchange cryptocurrencies - easily convertible into real currency - make the threat of terrorist financing concrete, in addition to the risks of moral support and technical assistance. Therefore, we can realize how synthetic dimension and reality are closely linked and how virtual threats can easily reach the physical world.


In this respect, documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 confirmed Cole's allegations, revealing that, among other intelligence agencies, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) had been monitoring various virtual realities - including Second Life - for a long time because they considered them as potential recruitment, training, and planning centers for terrorist groups.


9. The urgency of regulating and supervising cyberspace


It is evident that, although domestic and international efforts are being made to secure cyberspace, its embedded transnationality and the spread of increasingly complex technologies continue to pave the way for illicit activities.

On these premises and given that cyberspace is expanding in ever more compelling ways and on an unprecedented scale, albeit a more defined version of the Metaverse is still remote, the potential threats posed by it require the immediate attention of a diverse range of people and organizations.

Also, the necessity of an international and national effort persists, both public and private, involving companies, academia, Metaverse developers, society, and active citizenship, in order to set up a system of prediction, prevention, control, and contrast of crime and to establish a common regulatory and security framework, useful to contain the risk of malicious behavior and, in this particular case, of terrorist activities.

In this regard, the need to build a regulatory and control infrastructure for cyberspace that corresponds as much as possible to that of the physical dimension was also raised within UNOCT. Particularly, the following aspects were stressed:

  • Promote digital citizenship, intended as the individual's ability to safely and responsibly access digital technologies and be an active and respectful member of society, both online and offline.

  • Overcome anonymity by enhancing transparency and accountability (of platform providers), considered necessary actions to build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. Notably, transparency was indicated in the Preliminary report on the first draft of the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence as fundamental: “often a crucial precondition to ensure that fundamental human rights and ethical principles are respected, protected and promoted” and “necessary for relevant national and international liability legislation to work effectively.”

  • Addressing the problem of cyber policing: there is a need to rethink the real-world policing concept to address the emerging challenges posed by cyberspace, as well as the necessity to build capacity and cooperation in a multi-stakeholder environment. The network's horizontal structure and decentralized architecture hinder control of Internet activities and impede the investigation of crimes perpetrated in cyberspace. Additionally, the lack of borders in cyberspace clashes with the criminal law, which is considered a matter of national sovereignty, while protocols used for data transfers over the Internet run through multiple countries; moreover, since cyberspace has no borders, criminals and victims may be located in different countries or even on different continents, which requires international cooperation and investigation.

  • Entrust recording of crimes committed in cyberspace to a cyber policing organization.

  • Develop constant monitoring tools to provide automated capabilities, enabled for instance by Artificial Intelligence (AI), useful for effectively detecting and reporting atypical activities.

  • Adopt a shared code of conduct that is clear and practically enforceable, and establish internationally recognized cyber ethics committees useful in developing greater awareness of the risks associated with developing cybersecurity.

Conclusion

We stand at the beginning of an innovation and experimentation explosion in which human and artificial actions intertwine and integrate into a continuum that blurs the lines between physical existence and simulation. New digital communities are forming in the Metaverse where identities are splitting into two complementary elements, the real and the digital, and virtual properties are becoming an independent class of goods, allowing the real economy to move to a higher level of progress, interdependent with the digital economy.


While it is undeniable that an economy with a billion-dollar turnover represents an essentially infinite pool of opportunity, it is also crucial to remember that those same qualities that make virtual reality a potentially revolutionary technology also make it profoundly dangerous.


It has been shown that in the digital world cognitive threats already exist, that can have major tangible repercussions both socially and economically and, subsequently, also politically and militarily. Among these, terrorism is only one option.


The fact that most gaming economies do not operate within a distinguishable regulatory framework generates systemic vulnerabilities that raise a need to support the expansion of the Metaverse with a regulatory framework and a monitoring system that, given the transnational nature of this domain, must be internationally shared.


Therefore, radical change is required from all members of the international community to move beyond an individualistic approach and towards global cooperation, which is essential to generate an infrastructure that secures the sector and responsibly guides its development.

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Note

[1] M. GRIEVES, J. VICKERS, “Digital Twin: Mitigating Unpredictable, Undesirable Emergent Behavior in Complex Systems”, in F.J. KAHLEN, S. FLUMMERFELT, A. ALVES (eds.), Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Complex Systems, Springer International Publishing Switzerland, pp. 85-113, 2017. Available online. [2] F. VANORIO, Metaverso e Sicurezza Nazionale. Internet 3.0 e Nuovo Ordine Mondiale Digitale, Istituto Italiano di Studi Strategici Niccolò Machiavelli, Rome, 2021. Available online. [3] M. BALL, “Framework for the Metaverse”, in The Metaverse Primer, 13 January 2020. https://www.matthewball.vc/all/forwardtothemetaverseprimer . [4] For further details: S. SENNO, “La tecnologia applicata al settore finanziario: l’universo FinTech e il pericolo del finanziamento al terrorismo internazionale di matrice jihadista” in D. LAURETTA, S. SENNO, Finanza Islamica e FinTech: Sfide Normative e Minaccia Terroristica, L’Orizzonte degli Eventi n. 5, AMIStaDeS – Fai Amicizia con il Sapere, pp. 14-19, July 2021. Available online. [5] R. SMITH, “Military Simulations Using Virtual Worlds”, in Mark Grimshaw (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality, Oxford University Press, 2014. [6]F. VANORIO, op. cit., P. XVIII.


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