Major Hamad Khatir, Director of the International Operations Department at the Ministry of Interior of the United Arab Emirates

Virtual reality (VR) technology is no longer just a fad. With the potential to transform entire sectors, from gaming, entertainment and social media, to architecture, manufacturing and ecommerce, the metaverse – the digital world accessed through virtual and augmented reality – is fast becoming a crucial part of the global digital economy. Some might dismiss the metaverse as overhyped, but it is increasingly hard to argue when the market for VR is already valued at $800 billion, and growing.

For law enforcement, too, the growth of VR requires taking the sector seriously. Of course, this means being attuned to both the opportunities and the threats. Like any fast-growth sectors of the economy, VR is in its infancy: regulation has not had time to catch up with the virtual universes we are increasingly occupying. Keeping tabs on safety, privacy and anti-trust concerns should be a high priority, and crime, abuse and misinformation in the metaverse are risks that law enforcement has a duty to combat.

Just like the internet, the metaverse’s strength is its openness: it is an interactive world in which we can collaborate, work and play. Just like the internet, the metaverse can boost competition and economic activity, and help millions benefit from the knowledge economy. But – just like the internet – there will need to be some proper ground rules. The metaverse cannot be a new Wild West, or a source of vulnerability.

Just as this new technology presents challenges, however, it also opens up new opportunities, which again we must grasp if we are to stay ahead of the curve. If police services are to be technologically innovative and agile, cooperating effectively with their global colleagues, we need to deploy VR as more than just teleconferencing tool. We must see it as a crucial part of training and knowledge sharing.

VR provides law enforcement specialists the opportunity to operate in an entirely mouldable platform on which to come together and build a joined-up, targeted response to modern security risks, without the need for physical access. It offers police teams crucial hands-on, real-time experience of working with colleagues, who may be on the other side of the world.

For global coalitions of law enforcement professionals, such as the International Security Alliance (ISA), this offers limitless potential. Launched by the UAE and France, and bringing together interior ministries from as far as afield as Bahrain, Israel, Italy, Morocco, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia and Spain, the ISA is committed to protecting global communities’ safety and prosperity. Already, VR has brought its members closer together, enabling it to function as a tight-knit working group that tackles the next generation of safety and security issues.

Just look at its work in the UAE. This month, in EXPO 2020 in Dubai, the ISA hosted a live, VR-based joint cybersecurity exercise, the first of its kind to be run in the metaverse. The unique simulation, ISALEX 2.0, saw 50 law enforcement professionals across the globe come together to tackle fictional – but realistic – security scenarios. From operation rooms and command and control centres in nine countries, teams interacted in real time and in virtual reality.

The exercise took place over three days, and teams operated in a replicated urban environment – a fictional city mapped out wholly in the metaverse. International security professionals were able to tackle drone threats to critical infrastructure and foil dark web-based ransomware attacks, applying the latest cybersecurity and forensic techniques remotely. Dealing with the challenges of a simulated social media environment, strategic communications, legal and regulatory experts also supported their teams’ investigations, presenting their case to prosecutors to secure international support for their case across INTERPOL.

The exercise proved that using VR in a training environment allows law enforcement professionals to stress-test their coordination and decision-making, threat assessment and mitigation capabilities. It showed that the metaverse provides an environment in which to build teams’ capacity to manage crisis scenarios. And it honed their ability to respond under pressure in an active – if virtual – landscape.

This is arguably just the tip of the iceberg. This means VR could also hone police teams’ response to everything from trans-national organised crime and border control, to crisis and disaster management; from radicalisation and misinformation, to civil defence and violent extremism.

We have taken law enforcement into the metaverse, and the use of applied VR marks an exciting step into the future. But it is ultimately in the real world that we will reap the benefits.