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Trust and safety in the metaverse

Posted March 31, 2022
3D illustration of person wearing virtual reality headwear floating in a digital space

The term “metaverse” can be traced back to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash. Thirty years ago, Stephenson described the metaverse as a place where “magic is possible” and as a “fictional structure made out of code.” People entered Stephenson’s metaverse as “avatars” using virtual reality (VR) hardware. And while his vision of a metaverse was a powerful form of escapism for the novel’s characters, it was not without its dangers.

Three decades after its initial publication, a similar concept of the metaverse is dominating real-world headlines today. It’s widely being viewed as a new digital frontier for brands to embrace and explore. As that frontier expands and as development continues, the merging of digital and physical concepts under the metaverse banner are expected to enhance human experiences in ways limited only by the imagination.

In fact, brands across all industries have already committed to metaverse adoption in some way, shape or form. A recent survey conducted by TELUS International and Pulse found that 54% of technology leaders have, or are planning to, incorporate the metaverse into their strategy.

Survey result bar chart depicting answers to the question: "Are you planning to incorporate the metaverse into your company's technology strategy?"

While there are still many companies working out what all of this means for them, there is nonetheless a growing belief that the metaverse will be big. Constellation research predicts that the metaverse economy will create a $21.7 trillion market by 2030, lead to new business models, exponential tech innovation and an overhaul of societal expectations.

At the same time, companies are still trying to understand the risks and consumers’ expectations inherent to this amorphous environment, says Yao Yao, senior product marketing manager at TELUS International: “The metaverse is immersive, so there is new dimensions to the threats that may exist and the types of safeguards that will be necessary. The very nature of mitigating risks and responding to noncompliant behavior will be complicated, and is the subject of ongoing iteration.”

That’s why it’s imperative to balance opportunity with responsibility. Yao says the key is developing a metaverse strategy that embraces best practices in trust, safety and security. Here’s what that can look like.

Security in the metaverse

Often, the metaverse evokes images of open-world gaming like Roblox and Fortnite, but futurists view it as a space for communities of all kinds to connect virtually. In Bill Gates’ 2021 year in review blog post, he painted a portrait of a not-too-distant future where meetings would move from 2D camera image grids to 3D avatars in the metaverse.

“The idea is that you will eventually use your avatar to meet with people in a virtual space that replicates the feeling of being in an actual room with them,” writes Gates. “To do this, you’ll need something like VR goggles and motion capture gloves to accurately capture your expressions, body language and the quality of your voice.”

Hardware requirements aside, the exchange of confidential company information within a metaverse meeting environment will require sophisticated security. For instance, fraudsters and hackers who successfully acquire user credentials could impersonate a company employee or stakeholder to get a hold of private data or cause other harm.

Frank Dickson, program vice-president for security and trust at research firm IDC, recently told VentureBeat that identity security will need to be continuously authenticated. Given the metaverse is meant to be an immersive environment, Dickson says: “It will need to be more than just [multi-factor authentication]. If you’re in the metaverse, you’re not going to want to stop, pull out your phone and punch in a six-digit code. “So we’re going to need to make that authentication as invisible and seamless as possible – but without sacrificing security.”

That concept might conjure up images of retina scans, but using biometric data as authentication poses unique challenges. On the one hand it means asking employees and customers to give your brand more personal data. On the other, it also makes you responsible for data stewardship and transparency.

Fraud detection and prevention in the metaverse

Another pillar of trust and safety in the metaverse will hinge on ensuring economic activity is safe.

“In this new metaverse environment, a lot of platforms may allow their users to purchase digital assets,” says Yao, pointing to brands like Nike and Disney that have already developed one-of-a-kind virtual assets in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). “So how do you make sure people can purchase those assets safely, and keep their digital items secure, in this new environment?”

The question becomes especially pertinent when considering that brands will be expected to translate the sensory experience of shopping to virtual reality settings. According to Shopify, extended reality (XR) content — for example, trying-on items virtually through augmented reality — showed a 94% higher conversion rate than for products without XR. That said, an increase in virtual transactions will require brands to build a strategy for preventing fraud, verifying customer identities and authenticating transactions. For fintech brands, anti-money laundering and Know Your Customer protocols will also come into play.

Blockchain technology shows promise as a potential solution with its inherent security features that prohibit the record tampering of transactions. Its resistance to cyberattacks makes it a good candidate for preventing fraud. However, companies will still be on the hook for having strong fraud detection protocols in place. That will likely mean having AI-powered detection tools and human teams working together to ensure marketplaces are protected.

“It’s all related to safe transactions in a digital environment,” says Yao. “Finding ways to incentivize better behaviors and reward positive interactions could play a bigger role in a safer digital future.”

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Content moderation in the metaverse

In the immersive environment of the metaverse, brands can build deeper connections by enabling new kinds of interactions and bringing typical in-person experiences online. One notable example is the emergence of interactive, digital concerts like Ed Sheeran’s recent in-game performance in Pokemon Go. More than a concert, the collaboration provided an opportunity for attendees to get their hands on special in-game items.

Depending on how immersive experiences are designed, it really could feel like you’re in the same space with someone else, says Yao. While there’s a lot of positive potential, it also opens up new avenues for undesirable behavior. “With digital risks already being high, especially for vulnerable groups, safety concerns could be more prevalent in the metaverse environment,” Yao explains.

Agile content moderation will be vital as people interact. According to a TELUS International survey on user-generated content (UGC) and brand trust, 78% of respondents said it’s on brands to create positive and welcoming online experiences. Four in 10 said they’d disengage completely from a brand’s community with just a single exposure to toxic or fake UGC.

Content moderation is typically driven top-down by regulators based on local laws and customs, but in a borderless space like the metaverse, companies will have a lot more work to do to adopt best practices. Yao says that might mean tapping into community-led governance. That, she says, could require brands to have in-world moderators to keep users safe while checking for emerging content and behaviors. “We cannot take the old standard and apply it to this new environment,” adds Yao.

Given that this is a fast-changing milieu and the pace will likely only quicken, companies looking to enter the metaverse are wise to do so with a content moderation partner that they can trust.

A new world for trust and safety

The metaverse is still taking shape, and brands across all industries are clamoring to play a role in designing it. Even if your company isn’t on the frontlines of the movement, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your approach and strategy now — especially when it comes to trust and safety.

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