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Crime and Law Enforcement in the Metaverse

Criminal in Metaverse

The metaverse is a virtual digital world where users can engage in whatever their imagination allows, but the dangers and necessary guardrails—including implications for law enforcement—are only beginning to emerge. To understand the metaverse’s potential societal impacts, it is useful to consider how long-term technology trends might influence it.

Violence by proxy has been a staple of video games for decades. The alarms raised have led to warning labels and content ratings, even as the violent depictions have become more sophisticated, with near-photorealistic detail. At the same time, digital worlds have become more experiential, as users build virtual resources, acquire assets that can be bought and sold using real-world currency, and participate in augmented and virtual reality activities ranging from art museum tours to Pokémon GO. Moreover, a growing proportion of social interaction is now digital, encompassing personal and romantic relationships, as well as forums for expressing and amplifying sociopolitical views.

These factors, both individually and in combination, become more intensified in an immersive metaverse that intentionally separates itself from reality but involves people deeply. Unfortunately, metaverse technology also assists criminals in committing crimes, sometimes horrifically, by exploiting the vulnerable including children, perpetrating scams, and providing a proxy world for other antisocial behavior. While the criminal potential of the metaverse is distinct from physical reality, law enforcement and society must move quickly to address it.

Challenging Assumptions About the Definition of Crimes

As authorities and others consider the scope of what constitutes crime in the metaverse, they typically begin by grafting existing laws from the physical world onto the digital one. There is inherent logic to this approach, despite its limitations. Many crimes of exploitation, such as grooming and fraud, are relatively familiar in the online sphere. Crimes like intimidation, deception, and stalking also exist in the metaverse, and appropriate legal frameworks for these may be similar or identical to those in the physical world.

On the other hand, what would be criminal behaviors in the physical world may not be in virtual ones. As video games have demonstrated, some virtual environments are designed to permit acts of violence, property crimes, and other illegal or normally unacceptable behaviors. The general consent of participants might make those behaviors acceptable in a way not possible in conventional contexts. Nevertheless, laws are needed to define and guide that consent to prevent real harm from factors such as bullying and bigotry, which current legal systems may be ill-equipped to address.

The metaverse introduces new considerations and complexities in matters of civil and criminal law. For example, a user could create an avatar resembling a public figure or bearing a corporate logo, then engage in embarrassing or defamatory behavior. Although existing laws address such acts, responding to them is complicated by the anonymity of the avatar’s owner and the lack of clear guidelines compelling service providers to suspend accounts or remove content.

Systemic Limitations in Enforcement and Prosecution

The metaverse, with its rich and immersive space, inherently spans across various geographies and jurisdictions, complicating law enforcement efforts due to uncertainties about applicable national laws. Depending on the countries involved, this complexity may hinder lawful data interception or block the extradition of perpetrators.  Criminal organizations could intentionally locate where such legal ambiguities most benefit them. These concerns echo existing challenges in international law enforcement, and as the metaverse becomes more prominent and developed, they can be expected to become more critical.

Current legal protections are often ill-suited for the digital environment of the metaverse. It may not be clear, for example, whether theft of metaverse assets constitutes a property crime. If one party stole another party’s in-game supplies, there is probably no legal remedy, which may be appropriate. Conversely digital assets with real-world monetary value may warrant legal protections. There is significant room for ambiguity, which extends to a victims’ emotional duress and civil rights, highlighting the need for clearer definitions and interpretations.

Legal authorities now have a crucial window to establish guidelines. Clear policies are needed to define what can be prosecuted, what data can be collected by lawful interception, and what is required from courts or other authorities to compel that collection. Laws should address how metaverse operators collect and retain both identity and usage data and outline their obligation to cooperate with law enforcement. Establishing these laws, attitudes, and processes to respond to and address crime in the virtual world has become timely and essential.

About Kevin McTiernan

Kevin McTiernan headshot - SS8 Networks

Kevin has over 20 years of extensive experience in the telecommunications and network security industries. At SS8, Kevin is the VP of Government Solutions and is responsible for leading the vision, design, and delivery of SS8’s government solutions, including the Xcipio® compliance portfolio. You can learn more about Kevin on his LinkedIn profile by clicking here.


About SS8 Networks

As a leader in Lawful and Location Intelligence, SS8 helps make societies safer. Our commitment is to extract, analyze, and visualize the critical intelligence that gives law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and emergency services the real-time insights that help save lives. Our high performance, flexible, and future-proof solutions also enable mobile network operators to achieve regulatory compliance with minimum disruption, time, and cost. SS8 is trusted by the largest government agencies, communications providers, and systems integrators globally.

Intellego® XT monitoring and data analytics portfolio is optimized for Law Enforcement Agencies to capture, analyze, and visualize complex data sets for real-time investigative intelligence.

LocationWise delivers the highest audited network location accuracy worldwide, providing active and passive location intelligence for emergency services, law enforcement, and mobile network operators.

Xcipio® mediation platform meets the demands of lawful intercept in any network type and provides the ability to transcode (convert) between lawful intercept handover versions and standard families.

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