Policing in the metaverse: the opportunities and challenges of immersive technology
Immersive technologies are any Extended Reality (XR) technology (including Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality (MR), and Virtual Reality (VR)), which gives users a three-dimensional perception of being physically present in a digital world. Taken together, they create what is now commonly coming to be known as the ‘metaverse’ – a digital space where users can increasingly interact, learn and earn.
Originating from gaming, the arrival of the metaverse has created a new, digital environment that has grown rapidly in recent years. The virtual gaming platform Roblox had more than 43 million users each day in 2021. Social media platforms like TikTok are developing new platforms to host events virtually. And digital products continue to proliferate, most notably non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
The most recent Fjord Trends 2022 suggested that companies need to think about how their products might manifest in the metaverse and actively engage users in shaping these experiences. Equally, the recently launched Tech Vision 2022 explores how these technologies will reshape organisations across four key trends. But what does it mean for policing in the UK?
Immersing police with technology
The most immediate and obvious opportunity offered by this shift is in conducting training through XR technology. This could be deployed as in addition to traditional training and equip police officers with the skills to handle complex or highly volatile scenarios that might be difficult to prepare for otherwise. In some instances, this sort of training might even prove more effective than traditional methods. Evidence from immersive tech training demonstrate an improved knowledge retention rate than typical methods, better learning outcomes, and a higher attention focus from trainees. And there is even some evidence that it might help challenge cognitive biases that may impact how officers perform their duties.
Beyond training, XR can be used to bring together complex data sets and experiences to re-create crime scenes. Examples range from road traffic accidents to scenes of serious violent crimes. These can be used both to help understand the events of the crime as part of investigations and to inform juries in judicial processes. This sort of application is already being used with the US Army’s adoption of HoloLens mixed reality to project 3D maps in officers’ field of vision.
Policing at the cutting edge of technology
The environments created by immersive technologies also present a new frontier for law enforcement agencies to police and investigate. Threats to users include cyber-bullying, image-based abuse, like sexual extortion, and grooming children for sexual abuse. All of which may be exacerbated by the traditional demographic of these spaces.
Online interaction, gaming in particular, are especially popular with children and young people. Immersive gaming environments can enable criminals to adopt avatars, shielding their true age and identity to target children. They can also provide a platform for disseminating recordings of abuse. In the hyper-realistic scenarios created by immersive technologies, children may not yet have developed the critical reasoning to help them identify risks.
There have already been concerns about user safety online, with The Web Foundation finding that more than 50% of women and girls had experienced online abuse. And there is growing evidence that immersive tech and the metaverse might exacerbate this problem.
Added to these challenges to personal safety online is the risk to personal data security. Immersive environments record high volumes of data, including biometric, location, and personal information. This could provide new opportunities for criminals to conduct identify theft, fraud, and online scams. Coupled with the growth of virtual currencies, immersive technology could offer a borderless space for criminals to victimise users without entering the traditional spaces covered by police and justice agencies.
Stepping into an immersive future
Immersive tech has much to offer and there are huge benefits to be reaped from some of the use cases described at the beginning of this blog. However, proactively and adequately policing digital environments is likely to need new skills, tools, and approaches. Importantly, it may mean building new relationships with the companies that are providing these digital spaces to work together to build safer environments for all.
The Online Safety Bill is a step in this direction. The recent revisions that require companies to seek out and remove both illegal content and content that is harmful to children begin to address some of the risks. However, there will remain challenges in enforcement at this scale, across multiple environments, applications, and users. There will also be questions about how to balance this protection with privacy and inclusivity to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from this new frontier.
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Victoria Thorpe, Accenture
Georgie joined techUK as the Justice and Emergency Services (JES) Programme Manager in March 2020, then becoming Head of Programme in January 2022.
Georgie leads techUK's engagement and activity across our blue light and criminal justice services, engaging with industry and stakeholders to unlock innovation, problem solve, future gaze and highlight the vital role technology plays in the delivery of critical public safety and justice services. The JES programme represents suppliers by creating a voice for those who are selling or looking to break into and navigate the blue light and criminal justice markets.
Prior to joining techUK, Georgie spent 4 and a half years managing a Business Crime Reduction Partnership (BCRP) in Westminster. She worked closely with the Metropolitan Police and London borough councils to prevent and reduce the impact of crime on the business community. Her work ranged from the impact of low-level street crime and anti-social behaviour on the borough, to critical incidents and violent crime.