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AR and VR Cybersecurity Challenges: Navigating New Frontiers

There are many unique VR cybersecurity challenges, and AR and VR are going mainstream

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies are no longer just futurist fantasies. In light of yesterday’s news from Apple and Meta’s continued gaming support, VR is stepping up.

Many of us in the tech space are early adoptors, and VR cybersecurity isn’t something we’ve really had to consider so far. I’ve been a regular VR user since the PSVR, moving to a Quest 1 and then a Quest 2; however, as new technologies become mainstream, which they very possibly will with the release of the Apple Vision Pro (their new $3,499 AR headset), they invariably introduce a plethora of cybersecurity and privacy challenges. VR cybersecurity will be a very real issue that users, developers, and security teams will have to consider in the immediate future.

Let’s dissect some of these emerging risks and briefly examine how users and developers can mitigate them.

The virtual landscape: AR and VR cybersecurity

AR overlays digital elements onto our physical world, while VR immerses us in a wholly artificial environment. Both technologies are slowly gaining traction in gaming, education, and training sectors. Yet, their rapid development has outpaced a comprehensive understanding of the security implications.

The global VR market is estimated to reach $26.9 billion by 2027, and 15% of the US population is already dabbling in VR technology. With 110.1 million AR users in the U.S., and over 171 million VR users worldwide, this new technology is a growing concern as a cybersecurity black spot. As of 2022, the VR gaming already industry boasts a health market size of $12.13 billion, and individuals between the ages of 25 and 34 make up nearly a quarter of the user base.

Unseen dangers in virtual realms

AR and VR systems are, at their heart, data processing platforms. Like any other technology handling data, they’re susceptible to threats. Let’s delve into some specific risks and potential VR cybersecurity hurdles associated with these platforms.

  • Privacy risks

    AR and VR systems require a wealth of personal data, including location, visual data, and possibly biometric data, to function. If unsecured or misused, this data collection presents a significant privacy concern. For instance, malicious actors could exploit these data to track users, conduct surveillance, or target phishing attacks.

  • Application vulnerabilities

    Applications developed for AR and VR platforms are not immune to traditional software vulnerabilities – even if they are running on OS devices. These vulnerabilities could be exploited to disrupt the user experience, manipulate data, or even take control of the device.

  • Physical safety threats

    AR, in particular, poses unique physical safety risks. Users could be led into dangerous situations or locations due to software glitches or deliberate manipulation by malicious actors. Just by setting an inaccurate boundary (outside in the garden while playing Gorn) I’ve already had one visit to the local emergency room. Not something I’m proud of, but it does highlight how easy it can be to cause real physical harm to AR/VR users.

  • Rapid development

    Developers will produce for the VR market quickly, especially within the independent games industry, meaning a serious VR cybersecurity risk due to the use of supply chain code. Protecting against software supply chain attacks is going to be an essential part of AR/VR application development. The code could contain hidden malicious elements or vulnerabilities unknown to the end users, leading to potential breaches or unauthorized access. Also, if the supply chain is compromised at any point, this can infect the delivered code, making the recipient’s systems a conduit for cyber-attacks or data leaks. Thus, reliance on third-party code necessitates robust validation and security checks to mitigate these risks, which have the potential to be overlooked in a rush to product shipping.

  • Impersonation

    The potential for creating imposter avatars and deepfakes using AR and VR technologies is a growing concern. These manipulative digital replicas can have serious implications, from spreading disinformation to impersonating individuals for fraudulent purposes.

Securing the virtual frontier

Addressing these threats is going to require a robust, proactive approach.

  • A culture of caution and VR cybersecurity awareness will be critical. Users should be circumspect about the data they share with AR and VR platforms and be aware of potential physical risks.
  • Furthermore, policymakers will need to craft regulations that balance technological innovation with user safety and privacy.

Developers can employ several strategies to mitigate VR cybersecurity challenges:

  • Data Encryption: All data transmitted to and from VR devices should be encrypted to protect against potential interception.
  • Strong Authentication Mechanisms: Implement multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access to VR applications and associated data.
  • Regular Updates and Patching: Keep the VR software up-to-date with the latest patches and updates to fix any known security vulnerabilities.
  • Privacy Settings and Controls: Provide users with clear privacy settings and controls that let them manage how their data is collected and used.
  • Secure Coding Practices: Following secure coding principles to avoid common security pitfalls, like injection attacks or buffer overflows, during development.
  • Third-party Software Audits: If you’re using third-party libraries or tools, make sure they’re from a trusted source and regularly audited for security vulnerabilities.
  • User Education: Educate users on best practices for maintaining their security and privacy when using VR applications, including recognizing and avoiding potential phishing attempts or malicious software.

Developers must adopt secure coding practices and integrate security into every application development phase. They will need to adopt an application-centric approach with deep visibility into all activities within the applications, helping detect and mitigate potential threats and anomalies during development. As standard, they will need to employ behavior analytics to establish baseline activity patterns, and to identify any deviations that might suggest fraudulent actions swiftly. Organizations will be required, probably via regulation, to employ microsegmentation, which isolates applications and reduces the attack surface, to secure the application development environment, which could also be exploited in a supply chain attack.

This exploration into AR and VR cybersecurity challenges merely skims the surface. The future is so bright that we may all be wearing shades, really soon, but VR security is going to be critical. As AR and VR roll out into the mainstream, positive press is going to be essential, and VR cybersecurity will play a big part in securing our virtual future.

See you (safely) on ‘The Grid.’

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