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The Dark Age of Virtual Reality-Based Torture Is Approaching Fast

“In mental health, perceptions are reality, so if you think you are being tortured, you are being tortured."

​Imagine you're in a small room. The walls are covered in geometric patterns that literally hurt to look at. In the corner are a polygonal bed and bench canted at angles that make them impossible to sit on. The floor is cluttered with a gridwork of bricks rendering it impossible to walk any direction but forward.

It sounds like a computer model of the exact opposite of Fung Shui, but it's quite real. Built by anarchists fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the so-called psychotechnic torture cell used turn-of-the-century perceptual concepts in abstract art to maximize sensory disruption, subverting prisoners' senses to drive them mad.

It's a bizarre example of the kind of mind-fuckery that's possible when someone has the means of shaping your reality—something modern technology now allows us to do like never before.

Virtual reality is being trumpeted as a platform for everything from pornography to video games to treating PTSD. But given how powerful VR is becoming, and how widely used it's evidently going to become, one logical misuse is especially disturbing: torture.

To be clear, there's no evidence of VR being used to press people for information the way sound, rectal feeding, and other horrors were ​applied by the CIA in its secret prisons. But where the imagination goes, reality has often followed. And when it comes to torture, a simulation can be just as impactful as the real thing. "In mental health, perceptions are reality," says Dr. Asher Aladjem of Bellevue's Program for Survivors of Torture, "so if you think you are being tortured, you are being tortured."

When it comes to torture, a simulation can be just as impactful as the real thing.

Even current technology is enough to create "presence," the experiential nougat of immersion that makes the sensory input seem real. As the technology improves, virtual experiences will come to feel totally authentic. Under the right circumstances it might be impossible to tell the difference or even to look away. Even today's rather crudely rendered scenarios can affect viewers in profound ways.

Take this example of a timid young lady as she walks (literally) through a VR horror game, one that's as cheesy as it gets, and yet she's absolutely unable to keep the headset on when the scary stuff happens. The sheer immediacy of full visual and aural immersion can make the experiences as psychologically and physiologically compelling as "real" ones, enough to bring even seasoned users to states of fear.

VR is viscerally potent—that's why it's been used for reducing pain or treating phobias and combat trauma, though it could be just as powerful in doing the opposite. Virtualized trauma would leave no marks, and like 1984's Room 101, could confront victims with exactly the worst thing imaginable.

Image: ​SoundSelf

Aside from causing distress, VR creates a two-way channel of data that could be tapped for information. Developers are already employing biofeedback to create responsive experiences (above) that allow for a powerful psychosomatic link. So, too, are personal histories mined to increase the impact of VR experiences.

In PTSD therapy, for example, Skip Rizzo and his team at the University of Southern California take down patients' personal stories to replicate detailed battlefield experiences meant to trigger a strong emotional and physical response. Measuring heart rate, skin conductance, respiration, EEG, head movements, and other metrics, their subjects' stress levels visibly increase as the VR scenes confront them with specific traumatic events from their wartime experiences. Such involuntary reactions can be used to refine more impactful scenarios, and provide rich information about what's going on inside a subject's head.

A malicious virtual scenario wouldn't even have to target the subject directly. The mere suggestion of someone else's distress can be enough to trigger a response. A VR version of the famously disturbing Milgram Obedience experiment—in which test subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to increasingly distressed people in another room—demonstrates that we feel for the pain of even crude digital avatars in much the same way as real people.

This sensitivity to simulacra echoes a phenomenon known as vicarious trauma. It's something that usually applies to people who feel the pain of torture victims they work with, but it's another empathic pathway that could be exploited. In short, the range of possible exploits is as diverse as the ways a person can be harmed.

Virtual reality is becoming an ever more effective and available means for tapping into our deepest sense of space, presence, and self. That's awesome, but what can we do about its possible misuse? Meaningful regulation of an emerging technology is difficult at best. As VR evolves into a new commons, with major tech and social media companies pressing it into widespread use as a communication and media platform, those who occupy it may become vulnerable in ways that aren't yet well understood.

The best guard against the use of VR in torture may be the simple fact that current methods of torture are easier.

Perhaps it's best that we simply understand and respect the facts about the very real power of virtual reality—it's going to affect a lot of people, and it's important that developers of these technologies are aware of its implications, good and bad. Torture is just one example—online bullying, stalking, propaganda, all could be vastly augmented in their negative impact by VR.

The best guard against the use of VR in torture may be the simple fact that current methods of torture are easier. "There are so many ways to inflict harm on people, sometimes it's the simplest things, and a whole lot of technology is not needed," said Dr. Vince Iacopino, an expert on the assessment of torture victims and lead author of the UN's Istanbul Protocol for investigating and documenting it. "I don't know how much to make out of new technologies, whether people can be hurt any more than they already can with the most simple methods."

The experts I interviewed were reluctant to hypothesize about how one might turn VR to similar ends, which is understandable. If there's a will and a means, though, it's a good bet someone will exploit it. The NSA surprised computer experts not with the range of techniques they'd developed, but because they fully pursued literally every avenue available. Considering the apparently systematic, research-based approach demonstrated by our own government regarding torture, we shouldn't assume virtual space is off the table.