Police investigate sexual assault on an avatar

British police are investigating a case involving a virtual sexual assault of a girl’s avatar. Even though there was no physical violence involved the incident will be investigated as it has caused psychological trauma.

By definition, an avatar is a virtual representation of a user and is driven by the user’s movements in the virtual world. In Virtual Reality (VR) an avatar is placed, behaves, and moves like a physical body.

In the investigation, a girl under the age of 16 was playing a VR game when the avatars of online strangers gang raped her avatar. The VR experience is designed to be completely immersive. For example, we’ve all seen those “funny” movies where people wreck their television set because they lose contact with reality because what they see through their VR headset is so believable. So, it’s not very hard to imagine how much of an impact the incident had on the girl.

The BBC reports that the incident left her very distraught. According to an unnamed senior officer familiar with the matter, the victim suffered psychological trauma “similar to that of someone who has been physically raped”.

Whether it is possible to punish the attackers remains to be seen. As we all know, laws always trail behind when it comes to new technological developments. For an actual assault or rape case there needs to have been physical contact.

The incident should at least be considered as a good reason to:

  • Start thinking about legislation that can deal with these sort of incidents.
  • Create platforms that can provide a safe environment, especially for children.

It is possible to utilize existing laws, for example against the creation of synthetic child abuse images, which could be used as the basis of prosecutions in virtual world cases, but specialized laws would make court proceedings a lot easier.

According to the Daily Mail Online, police leaders are now calling for legislation to tackle a wave of sexual offending online, saying officers’ tactics must evolve to stop predators using new technology to exploit children.

Details about the specific platform have not been released. But it’s certain that the new technology has led to new variations of existing types of crime like the theft of rare game artifacts, fraud, and sexual offenses. Unfortunately, some people feel they can behave like savages when they are hiding behind their virtual identity.

Billions of dollars are invested in developing the metaverse, an umbrella term for virtual worlds, and to attract new VR users. We hope to see some of those dollars invested in safety precautions, which will keep the experience safe for everyone.

For parents looking for guidance on how to keep their children safe on the internet, we recommend reading Internet Safety Tips for Kids, Teens and Parents.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.