UK Police Investigate Girl's Virtual Rape

Traumatic VR attack and others like it could spawn new laws prohibiting such behavior
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 2, 2024 10:55 AM CST
UK Police Investigate Girl's Virtual Rape
A girl uses a virtual reality headset.   (Getty Images/FabrikaCr)

Police in the UK have launched what's believed to be the first investigation of an alleged virtual rape. A girl younger than 16 was using a virtual reality (VR) headset when avatars controlled by adult men attacked her avatar, causing what a senior officer describes as "psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped," per LBC. Police are investigating despite "concern a prosecution for the online assault is not viable," the outlet reports. "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," says UK Home Secretary James Cleverly. "A child has gone through sexual trauma," and "somebody who is willing to put a child through a trauma like that digitally may well be someone that could go on to do terrible things in the physical realm."

Graeme Biggar, head of Britain's National Crime Agency, tells the Evening Standard that the agency has been considering how to police the metaverse, a network of 3D virtual spaces, where rape and murder have been reported. "There is plenty of real world crime for us to be getting on with," he says, but a conversation needs to be had about whether virtual rape and murder can be considered a crime, with or without the use of a haptic suit, which allows users to sense pain and other sensations based on what's happening to their avatar in VR. The real-life impact of such crimes can't be denied, says Biggar. The girl whose avatar was attacked may have heard realistic audio and "felt the jostling and pushing of the avatars who attacked her character as a real physical intrusion," Peter Sommer, an expert in digital forensics, writes at the Daily Mail.

The virtual attack might fall under harassment, defined in the UK as a "persistent and deliberate course of unreasonable and oppressive conduct, targeted at another person, which is calculated to and does cause that person alarm, fear, or distress." "To be successfully prosecuted, though, sexual assault in the metaverse might have to be defined as a new crime," writes Sommer, noting there may be "no evidence of any assault, apart from the victim's testimony." It's unclear what VR platform the girl was using. Per LBC, Meta says that "the kind of behavior 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." The feature can be turned off. (More virtual reality stories.)

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