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UNO team considers how 'Metaverse' tech could be used by terrorists; heads to D.C. to share findings

Posted at 7:37 PM, May 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-08 20:37:15-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — To stay on top of national security, it's important to understand a rapidly changing tech landscape.

One of those landscapes is in 3D, behind a virtual reality headset. The vision is a positive one, capable of transporting the user to another place to learn or collaborate.

But that same technology could be an opportunity for terrorists, say a team of University of Nebraska Omaha researchers.

It's part of the work of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center, or NCITE, based at UNO, funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

What if someone in a room could use augmented reality to see something no one else can see? Is it possible attacks could be planned, and practiced, by virtually traveling through a digital replica of a building?

"I hope that the research that we do stops these things from happening," said Sam Hunter, NCITE's Head of Strategic Operations and a UNO psychology professor. "Unfortunately, I think there is a sense that this is a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'"

Hunter says once people understand the technology, they can wrap their minds around the ways it could theoretically be used to do harm. That's what the UNO team does: think of ways it could be used to do harm.

Now, Hunter says it's a bit of forecasting the future, but he suspects there's "some exploration" happening now. He said there are examples of terrorist organizations using tech in surprising ways. ISIS created a non-fungible token, for instance.

The team of six, including three faculty and three students, is heading to Washington D.C. on Tuesday for their "Metaverse Roadshow," where they hope to spread knowledge of their findings.

"It's easy, I think, for someone my age ... to get a little bit stuck in different ways of thinking," he said. "But by having young folks around me that sort of challenge assumptions and challenge questions, it sort of forces me to get a little smarter and think about things in a little bit different way."

One of those students is Alexis d'Amato, seeking her Ph.D.

"Everyone hears 'The Metaverse' and gets very excited from what they've heard about in the news," she said. "But we kind of look at it through a different lens."

In April, the Department of Homeland Security increased its funding agreement with NCITE to a cap of $35 million for government-requested projects.

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