Crime in the metaverse: What could possibly go wrong?

What crimes in the metaverse might you face? And how are virtual worlds tackling it?

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Should more be done to combat the threat that crime poses to people using the metaverse? – Photo: Shutterstock
                                

The metaverse is the biggest buzzword in tech right now. Everyone from Walmart to McDonald’s has filed trademark applications that suggest big business is interested in exploring virtual worlds. And of course, Facebook fired the starting gun on this craze by changing its name to Meta back in October.

JPMorgan has heralded the metaverse as a $1trn opportunity that will allow tech giants to create realistic workspaces in digital realms – and A-list celebrities to star in immersive concerts that devoted fans can attend from home. There’s a lot to be excited about, but as the industry grows at breakneck speed, challenges are beginning to emerge too… and one of them is crime in the metaverse.

Greeted with abuse on joining the metaverse

Shuchi Nagpal, chief education officer at the Asian School of Cyber Laws, was excited to see what the metaverse had to offer as she created a profile for the first time. But speaking to Currency.com, she described being confronted by people using “abusive and filthy language” just minutes after logging on to Decentraland.

“Avatars give a level of anonymity not seen before. Decentralisation ensures that essentially no one is held accountable. So, who do you report crimes to?” she asked.

Nagpal also said that, while crimes in the metaverse usually don’t lead to physical harm, the psychological impact of being targeted by such abuse is “completely trashed”.

Meta has been taking action here, and has introduced a “personal boundary” that introduces a 4ft distance between avatars. It’s designed to stop users from encroaching on someone else’s personal space, and complements other features that mean an avatar’s hand disappears if it nears another person.

Although this is a move in the right direction, Nagpal fears that metaverse criminals will be determined to find a way around such safeguards – and platforms such as Meta must do more to protect everyday users.

“The most common ‘helpful’ suggestion women get is ‘make sure your avatar is male’. What? Everyone, not just women, needs to be supremely aware of the people they are interacting with. Rules like ‘don‘t give your personal info to anyone’ still rock. Understand how much information is too much information,” she told Currency.com.

But there’s a bigger problem, according to Nagpal. The fractured nature of metaverses means criminals may easily be able to hop from one platform to another to escape accountability – and the decentralised nature of virtual worlds might embolden malicious actors.

She asks: “With the deletion of an account being the simplest way to make an avatar vanish, how will criminals be brought to justice? Does that not mean that there will have to be some level of centralisation and maybe even registration of avatars?”

Both Decentraland and Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Currency.com about metaverse and crime. 

Regulating the metaverse

Safety and privacy have long been hot topics in Web2, and many questions remain unresolved. This, in part, has been driven by a mentality of building things first – with rules and regulations following later.

Venture capitalist Bradley Tusk argues that the opposite should happen as the metaverse comes to fruition, writing in a blog post: “While policymakers can’t develop specific, detailed regulations for the metaverse until we have a better sense of what’s actually coming, we can avoid making the same mistakes we did with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and social media generally if we can develop an intellectual framework for regulating the metaverse now.”

Tusk points out other ways that crime in the metaverse can proliferate – with fraud, theft, and terrorist activity all risks. He predicts that the scourge of disinformation and fake news on social networks could be harder to police in the metaverse, too, and difficult questions will need to be asked about the protections that are afforded to everyday users. For example, regulators have a crucial role in ensuring that items bought in the physical world are safe. Can and should digital assets and services fall under this remit? Can crimes you commit in the metaverse be punished like real-world incidents? Should there be separate laws in the metaverse?

There’s a lot at stake here, especially considering the astronomical sums of money that consumers are already spending on virtual plots of land in the metaverse. What if these non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are used for money laundering, or if a coveted piece of digital real estate is stolen? 

Some of the dangers that have already been identified by early users include assault, as we have seen. But it’s also possible that metaverse crime could evolve, with the technology being used to facilitate old-fashioned techniques in new ways.

Romance scams are especially common in Web2, where unsuspecting users of dating apps are manipulated into handing over money by fraudsters masquerading as love interests. The immersive interaction, immediacy and intimacy offered by the metaverse could cause such incidents to spike.

Identity theft could also take on a whole new meaning, especially if someone’s avatar is stolen. And another danger to mention is the prospect of addiction.

Put it another way, can you commit crimes in the metaverse and face no penalties? You can’t go to jail in the metaverse, but certain platforms do reserve the right to ban users who harm others or violate their terms of service. And despite the fact that everything’s virtual, grave criminal offences could result in prosecutions back in the real world.

When it comes to physical injuries, the biggest danger in the metaverse may be attempting to move around in the confines of your home when you’re wearing a virtual reality headset and unable to see the physical objects around you.

While crimes committed in the metaverse may not have a physical effect on someone’s well-being, their psychological impact cannot be overstated.

Further reading

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