UK police investigating case of 16-year-old girl’s virtual gang rape in metaverse

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:22 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

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In what’s now become a disgusting and horrific reality of online gaming, another girl has been reportedly sexually assaulted in the metaverse. In response, UK police are taking an unprecedented role in the incident by investigating the crime. However, there are concerns that prosecution might be nearly impossible.

According to The New York Post, the 16-year-old girl has alleged that her digital character was subjected to a disturbing gang rape by anonymous online individuals while she was wearing a virtual reality headset within an immersive game. Although the victim suffered no physical injuries, authorities stress the gravity of the emotional and psychological trauma she endured, comparable to the aftermath of a real-world assault.

The case has ignited debates surrounding the allocation of police resources to virtual offences, with some questioning whether investigating such incidents diverts attention from the backlog of tangible rape cases. As many are aware, these recent incidents are not isolated cases of sexual assault within Meta’s virtual realms. The heightened concerns surrounding the safety of women in the metaverse have been exacerbated by a string of reported virtual assault cases gaining prominence in the news.

In an interview with LBC, Home Secretary James Cleverly underscored the immersive nature of virtual environments, emphasising the need to acknowledge the profound impact on a child who has undergone such digital trauma. Cleverly urged caution against dismissing the incident as unreal, highlighting that the perpetrators of virtual offences may pose tangible threats in the physical realm:

“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.” The politician then continued, “we should be very, very careful about being dismissive of this.”

“This child experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped,” noted a senior officer to the Daily Mail: “The emotional and psychological toll on the victim is deemed long-term, posing challenges for law enforcement due to existing legislation being ill-equipped to address virtual offences adequately.”

Ian Critchley, lead for child protection and abuse investigation at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, warns that the metaverse creates a gateway for predators to commit heinous crimes against children, underscoring the urgency of adapting legal frameworks to the digital age.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) estimates that 15 per cent of children aged five to ten have used VR headsets, devices that were expected to gain popularity over the Christmas season. Notably, Horizon Worlds, the free VR game released by Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has witnessed several reported sexual assaults, highlighting the pressing need for enhanced online protections. Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist actively involved in metaverse research, previously recounted a harrowing experience she described as a “surreal nightmare” involving a virtual gang rape within Horizon Venues.

Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has invested significantly in the metaverse concept, envisioning it as a transformative digital space where users can create avatars and explore artificial worlds through VR headsets.

Law enforcement insiders have stated that sexual offences within the metaverse are now “rife” and have raised concerns about the potential for such virtual spaces to become breeding grounds for predatory behaviour. Donna Jones, the chairman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, has advocated for updated laws to safeguard individuals online, recognising the evolving landscape of digital interactions.

In response to the growing concerns, a spokesperson for Meta has asserted its commitment to maintaining a safe online environment. The platform has incorporated an automatic protection feature called the “personal boundary,” which ensures that users remain at a safe distance from unknown individuals within the virtual space.

However, challenges persist, and this incident prompts a broader discussion about the need for more robust safeguards and legal frameworks to protect individuals, especially minors, in the metaverse.

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