Terrorists Could Use Virtual Reality to Prepare for Attacks

What's to stop terrorists and other bad guys from using virtual for nefarious ends? John Lund/Getty Images

You don't have to convince the U.S. military of the power of virtual reality (VR). It has invested heavily in virtual reality simulations to train pilots and tank gunners, and introduce soldiers to the chaotic realities of combat without stepping foot on a real battlefield. 

This type of high-end training technology used to be the sole property of rich Western governments. But as the technology gets less expensive, what's to stop terrorists and other bad guys from using it for nefarious ends?

Two years ago, Daniel Gerstein was undersecretary for science and technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Among the projects in his $1 billion R&D budget was the creation of an immersive virtual world for training first responders arriving on the scene of a terrorist attack on American soil. Equipped with VR headsets, team members could navigate a burning, smoke-filled building looking for survivors. It's exactly the type of full-sensory virtual training exercise used by the military, and potentially the bad guys.

"The military uses this technology so that the first shots a soldier fires aren't against a real live enemy, but a virtual one," says Gerstein, now a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. "You can take that same concept and transplant it into what a potential terrorist might want to do. If you had access, for example, to a virtual display of a building that you wanted to attack, you could do virtual walk-throughs so that you would be ready."

Sadly, it's not hard to imagine how terrorists or other criminal groups could use VR technology to their advantage. First, there are the lifelike training scenarios to prepare recruits for a suicide bombing attack or a kidnapping. Then there's the psychological component. Ongoing research at facilities like Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab show that positive virtual experiences can influence real-world behavior for the better. So, could repeated exposure to hyper-realistic virtual propaganda — coupled with torture or mind-bending medications — turn even unwilling recruits into willing killers?

The U.S. intelligence community is well-aware of this possibility. In his January 2016 report "Worldwide Threat Assessment," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that "augmented reality and virtual reality systems with three-dimensional imagery and audio, user-friendly software, and low price points are already on the market," and predicted that "their adoption will probably accelerate in 2016."

"[Terrorists] will easily take advantage of widely available, free encryption technology, mobile-messaging applications, the dark web, and virtual environments to pursue their objectives," wrote Clapper.

Gerstein agrees with Clapper. "The cost of entry is low and many individuals have the capability to employ them." He calls this a classic "dual-use problem" — one man's brilliant innovation is another's tool of destruction. Between his stint at the DHS and his current role at RAND, Gerstein has spent a lot of time examining life-saving innovations in biotechnology for their potential use in biowarfare.

“We have capabilities that a decade ago were things that only Nobel laureates were able to do. Today it's being done by junior high students,” says Gerstein. “The gaming industry is another example. People can now create very sophisticated games with limited resources. I'm absolutely sure that there are lots of people out there who have the ability to build these kinds of virtual environments.”

While Gerstein is not aware of any terrorist groups using virtual reality at this time, he admits that it's nearly impossible to keep something as ubiquitous as VR out of the wrong hands. But he would like to see more international agreements and treaties governing the use of cyberwarfare.

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