Attacking the Metaverse
By Josh Baughman
March 31, 2022
In China, 2021 was dubbed year one of the metaverse with extensive investment by local government, tech companies, major conferences, and studies all related to development and future of the metaverse . While there is not one authoritative definition recognized for the metaverse as it continues to evolve and develop, the basic idea is virtualizing and digitizing the real world. Stylianos Mystakidis from the University of Patras, echoes this idea in his definition, “The Metaverse is the post-reality universe, a perpetual and persistent multiuser environment merging physical reality with digital virtuality" . Others have referred to it as a “physical Internet where you don’t just watch content, you’re a whole person in it” .
While most discussion of the metaverse is in regards to commercial civilian use, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun to discuss potential military application and conflict regarding this emerging technology. In a PLA Daily article, published on March 3, 2022 titled, “The Metaverse: The New Heights of Future Cognitive Warfare” [元宇宙：未来认知战的新高地] the authors explain the extension of cognitive war into the metaverse . Important to note is the authors are from the Institute of Military Political Work, Academy of Military Sciences which is the highest level research institute of the PLA and directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission [i] which could connote a heightened level of authoritativeness.
The authors describe the metaverse as a highly developed cognitive world; although virtual, it is an extension of reality. As the authors write, “The metaverse provides a parallel cognitive space that digitally twins real combat scenarios, where cognitive warfare can be advanced efficiently and enhanced at a fast pace.” While the authors do acknowledge the benefits of the metaverse they also anticipate it will be an area for attack and conflict. By attacking an adversary's metaverse (and in cognitive war more broadly) one can, “affect the opponent’s thinking, cognition and action decision making” . The authors provide three styles of confrontation as shown in the following table:
The idea that there will be competition and conflict associated with the metaverse is not exclusive to this article. In the Northeast Window Magazine [东北之窗] [iii] there is an article titled “Who Can Win the Metaverse” [谁能赢得元宇宙] . The author believes that while in a technological and capital sense the United States is “far ahead in the metaverse”, but from a “cultural and substantive standpoint” China is superior . The author points out that social media platforms such as Chinese developed TikTok are better able to capture what the people want. The Chinese approach to the metaverse is more grassroots based and thus, much better suited to the needs of the people.
In another article, “New Battlefield–Metaverse” [新战场--元宇宙], the author places the metaverse as an extension of great power competition between the United States and China . The author writes, “In the future, China and the United States will inevitably compete in the metaverse” . The metaverse, while still in its infancy, will become a reflection of real society in the future and questions on jurisdiction will be one of many areas of conflict between the two nations.
At such an early stage in development of the metaverse it is hard to assess what impact it will have on society, politics, the economy, international norms, national security and society as a whole. However, what is clear is China is well positioned to be a leader in metaverse development with investment and backing by some of its largest tech companies as well as the Chinese Communist Party itself. Of concern is the potential conflict that may arise as the metaverse is implemented and relied upon like the internet. The information technology sector is already identified as US critical infrastructure  and the metaverse will be part of that when it becomes operational. Perhaps, the metaverse will become seamless, blurring the lines between the internet and reality. As society, including the military, rely on the metaverse in daily operation, there will be greater risk and potential consequences to disruption or destruction of the metaverse. The PLA Daily article on cognitive war already shows the possible attacks and potential damage that could be caused in the metaverse. Norms must be created to prevent possible conflict, but the ecosystem itself must also be made resilient as the metaverse becomes a key target in war.
Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency. Cleared for public release: distribution unlimited.
[i] Highest national defense organization
[ii] Refer to this study for examples of this type of attack. The authors give an in depth look at how to hack into VR systems to disorient and confuse users. Casey, P., Baggili, I., & Yarramreddy, A. (2019). Immersive Virtual Reality Attacks and the Human Joystick. IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing.
[iii] Comprehensive periodical of current affairs and finance.
 “Ye Mengyuan [叶梦圆] “‘Metaverse+: Adds a Little Happiness to Quality of Life’.”[《元宇宙+》让幸福感加一点的品质生活]. Accessed March 10, 2022. http://www.81.cn/yd/2022-02/07/content_10129613.htm.
 Mystakidis, Stylianos. “Metaverse.” Encyclopedia (February 10, 2022): 486–97. https://doi.org/10.3390/encyclopedia2010031.
 Dai Binxiong [戴 斌 熊], Xiong Sunhao [ 雄 孙 浩]. “Uncovering the Metaverse” [揭开‘元宇宙’面纱].” Accessed March 9, 2022. http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2021-11/26/content_303934.htm.
 Chen Dongheng. [陈东恒], Di Chan [翟婵], Feng Yaru [冯亚茹]. “The Metaverse: The New Heights of Future Cognitive War” [元宇宙：未来认知战的新高地] Accessed March 9, 2022. http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2022-03/03/content_310602.htm.
 Chen Dogheng [陈东恒]. “Artificial Intelligence: The Winning Blade of Cognitive War”“[人工智能：认知战的制胜刀锋]. Accessed March 9, 2022. http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2021-11/04/content_302370.htm.; This article is by the same author as “The Metaverse: the New Heights of Future Cognitive Warfare”. This article provides more detail about the basic concepts behind cognitive warfare.
 Gu Ziiming [顾子明]. “Who Can Win the Metaverse?” [谁能赢得元宇宙] Northeast Window Magazine [东北之窗], no. 12 (2021): 78 .https://kns.cnki.net/kcms/detail/detail.aspx?dbcode=CJFD&dbname=CJFDLASN2022&filename=DBZC202112025&uniplatform=NZKPT&v=JPeqy5ozWSd3n0qNPzxs3HrcMmnCI0Mpvc7h_s_WyOEhrJTvVBqCVtDgK9sOYRox
 Baihuayuan Li [百花苑Li] “New Battlefield - Metaverse” [新战场--元宇宙]. Accessed March 9, 2022. http://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=Mzg4NjEwODU3Mg==&mid=2247501792&idx=1&sn=60c8afe8292ba848c15c53295408a6c6&chksm=cf9c3f13f8ebb6051609276b5470143523a0c88e868613a0635158f11273ab4e95ebf2880db0#rd.
 Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. “Information Technology Sector” Accessed March 10, 2022. https://www.cisa.gov/information-technology-sector.
About the Author
Josh Baughman currently serves as an Analyst at Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) and as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA). He has also served on the staff of the National Defense University (NDU) College of Information and Cyberspace (CIC) as well as the US Air Force Academy, and as a national security journalist in Beijing, and Boren Fellow at Tsinghua University.