Sexual assault in the metaverse investigated by British police

Sexual assault in the metaverse investigated by British police

The Daily Mail reports on what may be the first time UK police have investigated a sexual assault in cyberspace:

Police are investigating the first case of rape in the metaverse after a child was ‘attacked’ in a virtual reality video game.

The girl under the age of 16 is said to have been left distraught after her avatar – her digital character – was gang raped by the online strangers.

The headset-wearing victim did not suffer any injuries as there was no physical attack.

But officers said she suffered the same psychological and emotional trauma as someone who has been raped in the real world as the ‘VR’ experience is designed to be completely immersive.

We don’t know which British police force is investigating the incident, which is said to have taken place last year.

We also don’t know which virtual world played host to the incident – although there have been numerous accounts in the past of sexual harassment and virtual gang rape taking place in Meta’s “Horizon Worlds.”

Horizon Worlds has a “personal boundary” setting which is supposed to prevent avatars from getting within four feet of each other, although this can be disabled.

Personal boundary

Horizon Worlds also explains that because it is an 18+ platform, it doesn’t have any active parental controls. I have no doubt that children do play with Horizon Worlds, perhaps with their parents’ permission, but that does mean they are at risk of being exposed to some pretty unpleasant behaviour from other players.

The sad truth is that Meta has spectacularly failed to adequately respond to abusive behavior on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, so I don’t have any confidence that it will ever be able to make its version of the Metaverse a pleasant place to hang out.

Unfortunately, at the same time, I find it hard to imagine that police forces have the resources or ability to properly investigate virtual sexual assault – let alone bring to justice the perpetrators.

And that’s before you even begin to consider the unusual nature of this – a sexual assault which involves no physical interaction between the assailant and the victim, who might actually be in opposite sides of the planet.

Yes, it certainly feels like something very wrong has happened to this child, but I suspect police could find it quite hard to unravel precisely what law has been broken here, let alone put together a compelling prosecution case that a sexual assault has occurred.

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Once again, technology and anti-social behaviour is running away quickly – and the law hasn’t even put its shoes on.

I would feel a whole lot more comfortable if people were aware of just how easy and common it is for people to demonstrate the very worst of human behaviours online when physically distanced from each other… and, of course, if young people were more actively discouraged from spending time in the metaverse.

For more discussion on Horizon Worlds’ sexual abuse problem, listen to this episode of the “Smashing Security” podcast.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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