Man in suit online security concept

Big tech is betting on the metaverse; it would do better to focus on email security

Image credit: Alexandersikov/Dreamstime

High-concept visions of the future might make for great headlines, but what businesses need right now is a focus on more practical initiatives.

Big tech’s latest obsession is the metaverse. Once a niche concept originating in science fiction, it’s gained a lot of mainstream attention lately. Most notably, Mark Zuckerberg recently told The Verge that Facebook is set to become a metaverse company, although the term was also bandied about in a recent Microsoft earnings call. If devotees are to be believed, the metaverse will change the way we do – well - everything. Sceptics, on the other hand, think it’s more likely to be just another tech bust, along the lines of Google Glass.

While the reality is likely somewhere in between, there can be no doubt that big tech could accomplish a lot more in the here and now by doubling down on security, particularly in the email space.

Before digging into why focusing on security is so important, it’s worth explaining what exactly this metaverse that everyone’s suddenly so hyped up about is. First imagined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’, it’s best to think of the metaverse as a kind of next-level internet laid over the physical world. Connecting the two are technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

Of course, for the evangelists, the metaverse would be a great deal more sophisticated than the AR and VR experiences most of us are familiar with today. People connected to the metaverse would be able to interact with things that other people in the real world can’t.

If the metaverse is to thrive anywhere, it’ll be in the enterprise space. Engineers and designers in particular are more likely to put up with weird-looking accessories if they genuinely help them collaborate on schematics and mock-ups in ways they weren’t able to previously. The ultra-geeks working in research labs might be early adopters too.

There’s form for this in both the early iterations of office computing and the internet, which proved their immediate usefulness in organisations before making their way into the consumer space. And even if the metaverse doesn’t become all-encompassing, that doesn’t mean pursuing it won’t be useful. After all, organisations found uses for Google Glass long after it stopped being available to the public.

As fun as imagining a metaverse future is, big tech needs to come to terms with the fact that it has more pressing needs right now. In particular, security remains a major issue. In 2020, each UK business experienced an average of 686,961 attempts (successful or not) to breach their systems. There were also 1,120 breaches and cyber attacks that were reported on in mainstream media, which accounted for 20,120,074,547 leaked records. Additionally, there was one ransomware victim every 10 seconds and US$17,700 was lost every minute due to a phishing attack.

Phishing is now only getting more sophisticated too. Office 365 customers, for example, are being affected by a kind of phishing referred to as ‘living off the land’ (LoTL), which occurs when cyber criminals abuse otherwise legitimate services and URLs to mask the true nature of their message. Some cyber criminals even leverage reCAPTCHA technology to further obfuscate the content on the eventual landing page.

Many of these attacks target weaknesses in big tech systems. For instance, 71 per cent of Microsoft Office 365 deployments in medium to large companies suffered, on average, seven take-overs of legitimate accounts at a time when remote workforces were more dependent than ever on the suite of apps to get their jobs done.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, T-Mobile was subject to a massive data breach, which affected more than 54 million people. The breach included names, driver's licence numbers, social security numbers and device identification (IMEI and IMSI) numbers for subscribers, former customers and prospective customers who may have been interested in T-Mobile services at some point in the past.

Such incidents don’t just cost companies credibility, they also cost money. By some estimates, global cyber crime costs US$1 trillion, or one per cent of the world’s GDP in 2020. It’s not as if organisations don’t know where to start, either. The vast majority of cyberattacks start with email.

As such, it’s clear that making inboxes more secure would probably do a lot more to make the world a better place than the metaverse would. While high-concept visions of the future might be seductive and make for great headlines, we need more practical efforts at the moment.

Geoff Bibby is CMO of Zix Corporation.

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