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Protecting the metaverse: Tips from a 2016 movie

Lim Hui Jie
Lim Hui Jie • 6 min read
Protecting the metaverse: Tips from a 2016 movie
The metaverse promises many things in a digital future, but how safe is it? Photo: Bloomberg
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Ask anyone “What is the metaverse?” and you’ll get a range of answers — spanning from a virtual marketplace where you can purchase items using crypto, a virtual reality world where we enter using virtual reality (VR) goggles, or for the more imaginative, Pokemon Go on steroids.

The fact is, nobody really knows what the metaverse will actually look like, but the closest real-world approximation is the universe shown in the 2016 movie Ready Player One. In the film, humans still live in the real world but access a virtual world called the Oasis using VR goggles and an omni-directional treadmill to simulate movement.

In the Oasis, users are represented by customisable avatars, which can travel to various “worlds” based on different themes for a holiday, to play sports, to shop for items in the real world, and many more.

Transactions are made with digital currencies, but have real-world implications. For example, you can buy items on a digital marketplace in the Oasis, and have them delivered to your address in the real world, just as you can buy items for your in-game avatar.

Are we already in the Oasis?

According to Yeo Siang Tiong, general manager for Southeast Asia at cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, glimpses of the Oasis in Ready Player One can be seen today, despite the film being set in the year 2045.

See also: OCBC stepping into the metaverse for next-gen customers

“There are already play-to-earn games like Axie Infinity, and digital assets like non-fungible tokens and weapons that can go from game to game,” he says, referring to games that allow players to earn cryptocurrency, and trading platforms that allow users to buy, sell or exchange digital assets, like weapon skins in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Yeo adds that there are already protocols in place for the exchange of “real-world actions” to “digital signals”. For example, when users book tickets or order items from an e-commerce site, it is essentially an action taken in the virtual world that has real-world implication.

He foresees the metaverse to develop the same way the Internet did — wherein the Internet started off with simple web pages that could only display text, before evolving to support instant messaging chat rooms and emails, and finally, becoming the backbone of e-commerce platforms today. “This whole experience is already seamless,” he points out.

See also: mm2 partners with The Sandbox to create content in the metaverse

However, no one company today is able to claim that it can build a world-spanning, all-encompassing metaverse similar to the Oasis. As such, Yeo thinks that the metaverse will initially consist of different ecosystems developed by different tech companies before becoming an interoperable whole.

He states: “There are already protocols to exchange tokens, to switch from one token to another, [called] bridges. Then there are also protocols to integrate real-world signals into crypto and into the blockchain world like oracles.”

The “oracles” that Yeo refers to are blockchain oracles, which are entities that connect blockchains to external systems. They, therefore, enable smart contracts to execute based upon inputs and outputs from the real world.

Smart contracts, as explained by IBM, are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met. They are typically used to automate the execution of an agreement so that all participants can be immediately certain of the outcome, without any intermediary’s involvement or time loss.

For example, insurance smart contracts use input oracles to verify the occurrence of insurable events during claims processing. These oracles allow access to real-world data — like data from physical sensors, web application programming interfaces, satellite imagery and legal data — to execute the contract and trigger the process needed for the payout.

In the same way, output oracles can also provide these insurance smart contracts with a way to make payouts on claims using other blockchains or traditional payment networks. “All these protocols are actually being developed, which means you see this converging into a situation where the real world and the virtual world sort of co-exist,” says Yeo.

Protecting the metaverse

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With humans spending a sizeable portion of their lives online, and having much of their data, money and identity online, it is safe to say that the metaverse will require protection when it becomes a reality.

According to Yeo, securing the metaverse will rely on mechanisms similar to what we have today. “You still need access control as there’s still data to protect. But now, it’s no longer just your personal information [that you need to protect. You also have to safeguard your] digital assets, which can exist in monetary terms and other different forms,” he says.

He adds that property deeds, identity cards and even our own bio-data are digitised today. So should identity theft occur, the victim could also lose something as important as their land in the metaverse in the future.

What can companies or governments do to secure the metaverse? Yeo admits this is in “uncharted waters”, adding that with a metaverse that has no geographical boundaries, there are many issues that need to be sorted out, and that Ready Player One’s portrayal is “two steps ahead”.

Yeo highlights that firstly, regulations still have to be discussed and agreed upon worldwide, such as protection for crimes committed on the metaverse and data sovereignty laws. That way, there is some “consistency” of regulations as people interact, access data, transact and even own property in the metaverse.

He believes we are far from that scenario as “every country is still debating over simple things like cryptocurrency”. Moreover, getting consensus from governments will be difficult with the current geopolitical situation.

However, he foresees regulations for the metaverse to be rolled out and standardised within the next two to three years, because the absence of that will make the metaverse an attractive target for cyber criminals. “There’ll be a point in time when it’ll be too painful [to deal with the cyber threats in the metaverse and] the government must step in,” says Yeo, adding that larger countries or regions like the US will most likely be the first to develop a common set of regulations, which the rest of the world will gradually adopt.

While we might be years away before the metaverse becomes a norm, companies and governments alike should ensure that the metaverse is built with security in mind and have the right safeguards in place to prevent a dystopian future.

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