© University of Southern California
On October 28, 2021, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps trying to put a determined end to what was for him and his company a definite annus horribilis (a horrible year), made a double announcement: Facebook is changing its name to Meta. Meta, according to Zuckerberg, will be a "social technology company" - an organization that will focus on transitioning Facebook's business from its "old" social media platform to a brand-new, yet-to-be-defined-and-constructed virtual domain called Metaverse.

Metaverse, "... a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection," will, according to its new promoters, developers and proponents, bring our virtual and physical worlds much closer together by converting the hitherto two-dimensional social media experience into a three-dimensional wonder world. In this amalgam of the virtual and the real, physical borders, hindering our movements from here to there, will become a thing of the past, to be replaced by a virtual universe-metaverse that will allow people around the corner and across the globe to meet each other and conduct all manner of fun and business in a virtual Wild West: gaming, chatting, consuming and distributing all manners of products, artistic creations, boundless learning opportunities and experiences, and of course, endless buying, selling and trading.

A veritable wonder world indeed; what can be wrong with it? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Fraudsters on Money's Scent

Most of metaverse's envisioned activity will have a financial aspect, and much of it will be unburdened by today's technological, regulatory, legal and even logical/ethical constraints, opening the doors wide to an army of fraudsters, large and small crime cartels, and cyber criminals, thieves, spies, blackmailers, and every vice in between. Both legit players and every type of criminal under the sun is sure to try to exploit the obvious benefits of anonymity coupled with the luxury of enhanced presence and access, enabling crooks to cast their malign nets far and wide in search for victims - the naïve, uninitiated, old, and impressionable.

For the vultures of the digital age, this will be Internet on steroids. Temptation galore. The world will, literally, become the playground for every schemer across the globe. Vulnerable believers of all creeds will be aggregated in super-mega virtual gatherings, get exposed to conscious and subliminal indoctrination on a scale so-far unknown, and probably be separated from their hard-earned money with the help of super-sophisticated emotional and behavioral engineering tools. Shoppers and traders in every commodity imaginable will meet each other in an environment that will blur the boundaries between physical and virtual, and criminals will have a whole new playground to ply their illicit trades of money laundering, pornography, human trafficking, facilitation of the transfer of elicit goods, disinformation, psychological warfare, and intelligence collection, transfer and dissemination - all geared toward making a quick profit or servicing an ideology, while inflicting pain and suffering on multitudes of unsuspecting and unprepared victims.

Gaming is Not a Game

The gaming industry, a burgeoning behemoth that is guaranteed to explode in size with the help of the new metaverse technologies, is already seen as an "easy channel for money launderers." Turkey has been implicated in e-sports and gaming funds transfer designed to obscure the financial transactions of organizations, such as ISIS. The integration of cryptocurrencies into the metaverse infrastructure will create a real (not virtual) dreamland for all things associated with money laundering - on a large and small scale. If the past is anything to rely on, legit state players, regulatory and enforcement bodies across the world will play catch for years with the hordes of metaverse criminals who will simply move away from every hole that has been plugged to exploit the next loophole. Add to that the newly exploding market of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), where digitally encrypted codes are used to demarcate real-life goods, opening the door to another huge, unregulated and difficult-to-trace and monitor market, where there is a potential for trillions of dollars in covert trades to take place, alongside the regular horde of fraudsters that is sure to accompany the smell of untraceable money.

Metaverse - A Terrorist's Favorite Go-To Place?

Terrorists will surely flock to the metaverse, since it promises to be a rich source of potential recruits, operational capabilities and funds. The metaverse will expand the reach and impact of online recruiters, help them to fine-tune their message to optimize impact and help them press with accuracy every button in their targets' psyche.

Once a disciple has been brought into the fold, the metaverse will be able to facilitate planning, coordination and execution of terrorist acts across the globe; metaverse technologies will be very useful in preparing terrorists for their missions, including the ability to allow them to reconnoiter their targets prior to execution with fantastic resolution - as if they were on site personally. They will be able to train, practice, fine-tune timetables and scenarios, all from the safety of their hideouts. Post execution, escape routes can be selected, studied, practiced, and monitored - virtually, before going operational and moving everything to the realm of reality.

And as the metaverse grows in volume, size and complexity, so will it present terrorists with a new set of targets - virtual, as well as real. As people get used to "living" their lives in virtual spaces, terrorists can target such spaces and achieve economic and psychological objectives without expanding a single bullet or detonating a single charge. Cyber terrorism will acquire a whole new definition under the metaverse roof.

State-sponsored and commercial intelligence outfits, including China, North Korea and Russia, and, of course, Meta, Amazon and Google, are already investing time and resources to learn about and probe the operational limits of the upcoming interface between reality and virtuality to collect more information about everyone and everything.

There are, of course, many potential good sides to the metaverse, and these will probably be enjoyed by multitudes, to their benefit and the benefit of the commercial outfits that will vie for their money. But unless governments, regulators, and communities set up the resources and attention to learn how to deal with the underbelly of this new technological revolution, many are certain to suffer greatly by being victimized. The victims will be hurt financially, emotionally, and psychologically, and the impact will extend from individuals to whole communities. The time to pay attention and get ready is now.

Dr. Doron Pely, a Fellow at SCI, is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Shefa'amer, Israel, where he conducts ethnographic study of Muslim/Arab customary justice practices. He teaches cross-cultural conflict mitigation, conflict de-escalation and Muslim/Arab dispute resolution practices. Dr. Pely holds a M.A. in Dispute Resolution from UMASS Boston and a Ph.D. in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King's College, London.