To Boldly Go Where No Metaverse Has Gone Before: A Virtual Reality Check

– Executive Summary

The metaverse is a rapidly evolving technological innovation that may have a powerful impact on nearly every industry. The metaverse, owned by Meta (formerly Facebook), has been hailed as the “future of connection.”[1] As discussed in this thesis, the metaverse refers to Meta’s metaverse and the headsets used to access it, allowing users to access a massive open-world environment that hosts games, social communities, and even virtual workspaces.[2] Given its complex virtual environment, understanding the dangers in the metaverse better informs and prepares homeland security professionals and public safety to protect against threats as the platform gains momentum. This thesis underscores some of the major issues already present in the widespread commercial success of the metaverse and its affiliated technologies and emphasizes the need for better cross-industry collaboration and future research.

Contextualizing the significance of the metaverse for policymakers, this thesis traces the evolution of social media, online gaming, virtual reality (VR), and the subsequent commercialization of the metaverse. To illustrate the growing popularity of such spaces, Twitch—a streaming platform that hosts gamers in a live, interactive, video chatroom-style interface—saw record-breaking growth with three billion hours of consumer use in the first quarter of 2020 and five billion hours in the second quarter of 2020.[3] A slew of factors complicates the intersection of crime and the internet. For as long as online gaming has existed, it has also facilitated illegal activity.[4] Most communities exist for social good and cohesion, yet criminals exploit unique opportunities in online gaming. In many cases, the crimes perpetuated online are financial or have a financial connection to the physical or natural world.[5] Other examples include harassment, stalking, child exploitation, bullying, and revenge porn.[6] Furthermore, researchers studying the most popular social app in Meta’s VR app store have found that users, including minors, are exposed to abusive behavior once every seven minutes.[7] In the context of VR, threats from online gaming and social media may bleed over from simulated spaces into the real world in new ways. Policymakers and planners may learn to combat metaverse threats from the hazards presented in various online spaces. This thesis draws on parallels between the evolution of online gaming and social media and that of VR and the metaverse.

Metaverse users were surveyed to validate the claim that security threats in the metaverse—extremism, crimes against children, and financial crimes, for example—are not being addressed and that these threats are likely to grow and expand with the metaverse. Additional data from the Center for Countering Digital Hate validate the survey data and the claims of this thesis regarding threats in the metaverse. As the metaverse develops and becomes more sprawling, criminal and terroristic activity will proliferate, and the platform’s anonymity and no central point of control will make it particularly difficult for law enforcement to track and identify individuals and their illegal enterprises during investigations.

This thesis emphasizes that law enforcement, the Intelligence Community, and the broader homeland security enterprise should recognize the impending concerns of the metaverse and take steps to be more proactive in addressing potential problems. It recommends enhanced collaboration between industries to secure the metaverse against future threats.


[1] “About the Metaverse,” Meta, accessed January 26, 2023, https://about.meta.com/metaverse/.

[2] “What Is the Metaverse?,” Meta, accessed January 26, 2023, https://about.meta.com/what-is-the-metaverse/.

[3] Sarah Perez, “Twitch Breaks Records Again in Q2, Topping 5B Total Hours Watched,” TechCrunch, July 1, 2020, https://techcrunch.com/2020/07/01/twitch-breaks-records-again-in-q2-topping-5b-total-hours-watched/.

[4] Kim-Kwang Raymond Choo and Russell G. Smith, “Criminal Exploitation of Online Systems by Organised Crime Groups,” Asian Journal of Criminology 3, no. 1 (June 2008), https://doi.org/10.1007/‌s11417-007-9035-y; Matthew S. Ruskin, “Playing in the Dark How Online Games Provide Shelter for Criminal Organizations in the Surveillance Age,” Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law 31, no. 3 (2014), http://arizonajournal.org/wp-content/‌uploads/2015/09/10-Ruskin.pdf.

[5] Angela S. M. Irwin et al., “Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing in Virtual Environments: A Feasibility Study,” Journal of Money Laundering Control 17, no. 1 (2014): 50–75, https://doi.org/10.1108/‌JMLC-06-2013-0019.

[6] Choo and Smith, “Criminal Exploitation of Online Systems”; James Cole, “Radicalisation in Virtual Worlds: Second Life through the Eyes of an Avatar,” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism 7, no. 1 (April 2012): 66–79, https://doi.‌org/10.1080/18335330.2012.653197; Irwin et al., “Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing in Virtual Environments”; Caroline Meek-Prieto, “Just Age Playing Around—How Second Life Aids and Abets Child Pornography,” North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology 9, no. 6 (2008): 88–113, http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/ncjolt/vol9/iss3/6.

[7] Callum Hood, “New Research Shows Metaverse Is Not Safe for Kids,” Center for Countering Digital Hate, December 19, 2021, https://counterhate.com/blog/new-research-shows-metaverse-is-not-safe-for-kids/.

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