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UK: British police investigating first case of 'virtual gangrape' of 16-year-old in Metaverse

The teenager did not suffer any injuries as there was no physical attack, but she suffered the same psychological and emotional trauma as someone who has been raped in the real world, said officers. UK authorities believed that a prosecution is unlikely due to lack of physical touch.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: January 03, 2024 14:49 IST
Virtual offence, virtual gang rape, VR game
Image Source : PIXABAY/REPRESENTATIVE The 16-year-old girl was playing Horizon Worlds, an interactive VR game.

British police are currently investigating what is being considered as the first case of alleged 'virtual gang rape' of a 16-year-old girl's digital avatar in the Metaverse. The girl was wearing a virtual reality headset in an immersive game when her animated representation was 'gangraped' by online strangers, according to Daily Mail.

The teenager did not suffer any injuries as there was no physical attack, but she suffered the same psychological and emotional trauma as someone who has been raped in the real world, said officers. It is considered the first time in the UK that a virtual sexual offence is being investigated by the police.

The victim was reportedly in an 'online room' with a large number of fellow users when the virtual sexual assault by several adult characters took place. Police leaders have now called for new legislation to tackle of wave of sexual offences in virtual spaces in an apparent bid to prevent people from misusing technology to exploit children.

However, there appears to be significant uncertainty over police authority in virtual offences, given that police and prosecutors are dealing with a huge backlog of actual rape cases, and how these virtual crimes can be prosecuted under the law. Nonetheless, there has been growing apprehension over the possibility of the Metaverse creating a mechanism for crimes against children.

Challenges for prosecution

"This child experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped. There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer term than any physical injuries," said a senior police officer. Exact details about this one-of-a-kind case have been kept secret to protect the identity of the child.

However, the police official noted that the current legislation is not designed for such virtual criminal offences, which raises fears that a prosecution would not be possible. There have been numerous reported sexual attacks on Horizon Worlds, a free online game run by Meta that allows users to create their own avatars.

"We need to update our laws because they have not kept pace with the risks of harm that are developing from artificial intelligence and offending on platforms like the Metaverse," said Donna Jones, the chairman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners on protection for women and children.

Another police official said that sexual offences are "rife" within the Metaverse, but there have been no UK prosecutions for such acts despite the police receiving other potential virtual crimes like theft of an avatar's valuable sword.

However, UK Home Secretary James Cleverly defended the virtual rape investigation. "I know it is easy to dismiss this as being not real, but the whole point of these virtual environments is they are incredibly immersive. And we’re talking about a child here, and a child has gone through sexual trauma...It will have had a very significant psychological effect and we should be very, very careful about being dismissive of this," he said.

Cybercrime in Metaverse

According to the police, recent advancements in the realm of gaming have opened up new avenues for cybercrime like virtual robbery, fraud and identity theft. The current legal system is unlikely to cover rape in the Metaverse as a sexual offence as the law deems physical touching of another person as a crime under the Sexual Offences Act.

To complicate matters even more, the nature of the Metaverse also blurs geographical boundaries, making it difficult to determine which country or its law enforcement agency can have jurisdiction over a particular offence when the perpetrator and the victim are located in different countries.

"The kind of behaviour described has no place on our platform, which is why for all users we have an automatic protection called personal boundary, which keeps people you don't know a few feet away from you," said a spokesperson from Meta.

Ian Critchley, the lead for child protection and abuse investigation at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said that the Metaverse "creates a gateway for predators to commit horrific crimes against children". 

"We know offenders' tactics to groom and commit offences are constantly evolving. This is why our collective fight against predators like in this case, is essential to ensuring young people are protected online and can use technology safely without threat or fear," he added.

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