The world of crime seems to go hand in hand with the world of justice. The law steps in when a crime is committed, and that applies not only to the physical world but the virtual realm as well. Since crime does not sleep, neither can justice ─ in reality or digital.
Last year, Interpol emphasised the importance of first-hand experience in comprehending the metaverse. How will Interpol establish its presence in this virtual realm? Presenting a groundbreaking development, the global police entity has introduced the world’s inaugural metaverse tailored exclusively for law enforcement purposes.
Madan Oberoi, Interpol’s Executive Director of Technology and Innovation expressed in a statement,
“The metaverse has the potential to transform every aspect of our daily lives with enormous implications for law enforcement. But in order for police to understand the metaverse, we need to experience it.”
Since then, with a keen eye on the ever-evolving metaverse, the global police agency has forged its own realm within virtual reality (VR) to scrutinise potential criminal activities and contemplate effective policing strategies. In the quest to remain at the forefront, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock underscores the agency’s imperative not to be outpaced. Aware of criminals’ agility in harnessing new technological landscapes, Interpol’s preparedness becomes paramount.
Jurgen astutely observes that the tardiness of legislators and law enforcement entities can undermine trust in the metaverse. Hence, Interpol’s creation of a secure, VR environment holds immense significance. Through this immersive platform, law enforcement officers gain invaluable insights into the metaverse’s potential crime scape, enabling them to fathom policing methodologies for these novel frontiers. Such pioneering measures afford Interpol a distinctive advantage, enabling proactive strides toward the forthcoming era.
In a report by Europol last October titled “Policing in the Metaverse: What Law Enforcement Needs to Know”, they shed light on the alarming possibilities for future criminal activities in this transformative technological realm.
The report astutely addressed the concerning prospect of criminals duplicating or seizing control of user avatars within the metaverse. With a clear objective in mind, the report strived to equip law enforcement agencies and policymakers with vital insights into the intricacies of this novel virtual environment, empowering them to tailor their policing strategies accordingly.
VR may be digital but with it comes real-life problems
In 2022, a BBC investigation brought to light distressing incidents involving verbal and sexual harassment within the VR games. Shockingly, a researcher’s virtual avatar fell victim to sexual assault on Meta’s VR platform, Horizon Worlds.
These alarming occurrences underscore the pressing need for Interpol to delve into the metaverse and devise appropriate policing measures. Yet, defining metaverse crime presents a formidable challenge for the organisaton. Some offences that transpire within virtual realms remain unclassified, although their threat looms large. Instances of reported sexual harassment serve as a poignant example, raising the question of their legal categorisation.
While the agency exhibits an evident eagerness to govern the metaverse, its experts find themselves entangled in a conundrum over the best approach to tackle this formidable endeavour. Madan openly admits to grappling with the question of whether certain actions, such as sexual harassment, warrant comparable treatment in the virtual realm as they do in the physical world, “There are crimes where I don’t know whether it can still be called a crime or not. If you look at the definitions of these crimes in physical space, and you try to apply it in the metaverse, there is a difficulty.”
Nevertheless, he recognised the existence of a pressing issue. Additionally, he highlighted the inherent challenge in generating awareness about these concerns. As the metaverse expands its boundaries, it inevitably attracts unsavoury interactions and malevolent predators. Interpol has expressed its deep concern regarding the potential rise of formidable problems such as data theft, financial fraud, ransomware attacks, phishing attempts, as well as incidents of sexual assault and harassment.
Yet in a compelling counterargument, Nina Jane Patel, co-founder and head of Kabuni, a metaverse research organisation, challenges the notion. During an interview with BBC, Nina asserted that illegal activities that are punishable in the physical realm should hold the same consequences in the virtual world. Delving deeper into her perspective, she expressed concerns about the potential blurring of boundaries between socially acceptable behaviour in VR and real-life scenarios, emphasising the crucial role that clear delineations by authorities play in this regard. By drawing distinct lines, she contended that we can navigate the evolving landscape of virtual experiences while maintaining a sense of social norms and legal frameworks.
So what is new on the cyber cops front?
In an exciting development, the Hong Kong police unveiled their latest venture of a new Web3 platform last weekend, the “CyberDefender Metaverse”, marking a significant step forward in their digital policing capabilities.” To commemorate this milestone, the police force organised their inaugural virtual event, aptly titled, “Exploring the Metaverse.” At this this occasion, Chief Inspector Ip Cheuk-yu of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau (CSTCB) shed light on the perils lurking within Web3.
He engaged attendees by discussing the diverse range of threats present in the metaverse, including fraud, hacking, theft, and sexual offences. The event also accentuated the relevance of digital assets in the realm of contemporary cybercrime, underscoring the strides made in combatting illicit activities involving crypto. Through this immersive experience, participants were able to gain valuable insights into the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and the progress achieved in safeguarding the digital realm.
Accompanying the launch, the Hong Kong police force issued a press release, revealing alarming statistics regarding virtual asset-related crimes. In 2022 alone, the city recorded a staggering 2,336 cases of such crimes, resulting in victims suffering losses amounting to $1.7 billion. Furthermore, the first quarter of this year has already witnessed the reporting of 663 additional cases.
However, the most concerning aspect is the sharp rise in reported losses, which reached a staggering $570 million within just three months, signifying a disconcerting 75% increase compared to the same period in 2022. These figures underscore the urgent need for enhanced measures to counter the escalating threat posed by virtual asset-related crimes. The press release warned that, “Criminals took advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge about virtual assets and lured them into non-existent investment.”
On top of the new metaverse platform, the Hong Kong Securities Regulatory Commission (HKSRC) also updated the anti-money laundering (AML) guidelines. It not only highlights the methods employed by illicit actors but also delves into the proactive measures that financial institutions can adopt to shield themselves from unwittingly participating in illegal activities. The newly introduced regulations are set to encompass all firms engaged in virtual asset transactions. Among the key amendments are reinforced Know Your Customer (KYC) protocols and due diligence requirements. Under the updated guidelines, institutions facilitating crypto transactions valued at 8,000 RMB or higher are mandated to meticulously collect identifying information for both the sender and receiver, thereby establishing a robust framework to deter illicit activities within the virtual asset landscape.
To top that off, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reported in April that they will deploy cyber agents worldwide to investigate crypto’s use in financial crimes.
By fostering a deeper understanding of the metaverse, we can collectively forge a path towards effective law enforcement and safeguard the integrity of this emerging digital landscape. After all, increased interest in the metaverse comes with increased privacy and security risks, which prompts a deeper exploration of the appropriate response to criminal activity within the realm of VR.