'Avatar jail': does the metaverse need its own police force?

It may be only a virtual world - but crimes committed there could be very real indeed

Can we expect to see avatar police officers on patrol in the metaverse? Illustration: Nick Donaldson / Getty Images
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Two people enter the metaverse. They appear as avatars, wear virtual reality headsets and haptic suits that provide virtual feedback to the body. One person virtually assaults the other. What happens next?

It sounds utterly unreal but experts believe the metaverse's murkier side, and the potential for crime from assault to hacking to even avatar rape, has yet to be fully considered.

How to police the metaverse ― an online world where people may live their lives in the form of avatars ― has, then, opened a new frontier for governments, technological companies and police forces.

The issue was in sharp focus this week at Abu Dhabi's International Exhibition of National Security and Resilience conference where attendees heard hard questions being asked about trying to police the metaverse.

“If we start to see the metaverse doing what I think it will do, which is become ever more realistic and ever more huge, then you have to start to ask very difficult questions about what physical policing in virtual reality represents,” said Gareth Stubbs, a former UK police officer who spoke at the conference on Monday.

“If we introduce haptic suits with feedback from bodily touch … that opens up a huge amount of crime categories that focus on the body,” said Mr Stubbs, who lectures at Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi.

“It could be regulated through things such as consent. But it is open to abuse and open to hacking and open to impersonation.”

Some experts believe the metaverse could reshape the world of work and play. Reuters

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is envisaged as a new online world where someone with a 3D avatar ― a representation of yourself ― uses a virtual reality headset to go to concerts, work or just socialise. It was first mentioned in a 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash. The online community, Second Life, that was released in 2003 was loosely based on the concept. But interest has increased in the past few years driven by advancements in technology and huge investment by companies such as Facebook, which rebranded as Meta in 2021.

Some remain sceptical and it is thought the metaverse is still many years from fruition. However, interest is building and the UAE has announced it will establish a Ministry of Economy office there. Ajman Police has also conducted trials and Dubai's Metaverse Assembly last month attracted experts from across the world to explore its potential.

But questions are also being asked about policing and about who is responsible for regulating it. There have even been reports of avatars harassing others in Meta's existing virtual reality world, Horizons.

"Speaking from a US perspective, crimes in the metaverse relate mostly to inappropriate behaviour [harassment, use of explicit language, racism etc]," said Prof Marco Marabelli, an expert in the field who teaches at Bentley University in the US.

"These are important issues. The problem is that because the metaverse 'runs’ in real time, it is often difficult to keep digital traces of what happens on the platform or platforms. This makes it hard to prosecute perpetrators. This is a source of concern."

The technology to allow the metaverse to succeed, such as virtual reality headsets, is improving all the time. EPA

Quicker response needed from regulators

Experts at the Abu Dhabi conference suggested that governments and regulators around the globe were not moving quickly enough. Mr Stubbs said it was vital that the lawlessness of the early internet where criminals exploited the slow response of regulators was not repeated with the metaverse.

“People would say it was the heyday of the internet,” he said. “Yeah it was but a lot of bad stuff happened as well as the good stuff. Look at cybercrime. That has been stratospheric in growth. This was the untold story as the internet was developing.

“Law and regulation … will take years to set up and you’ll have that black spot … of unregulated space and that unregulated space gives space to bad actors. I’m not saying that’s all you will get [but] we should not be ignoring it.”

Prof Marabelli said one of the problems with emerging technologies was that legislators often started to address the issue only once the damage was done.

"One partial solution ... is to generate high level laws and regulations that protect basic rights of citizens with respect to technologies. Data privacy laws, laws that regulate how algorithms can be used with the general public with respect to transparency and accountability and so on," he said.

"To this end, Europe is way ahead of the US," he said, pointing to the adaption of GDPR and the proposed first-ever legal framework on the use of artificial intelligence.

"But recently the [President Joe] Biden administration is making important steps towards protecting citizens from inappropriate use of algorithmic-based systems," said Prof Marabelli, referring to the publication of the AI bill of rights, a set of guidelines that aims to encourage responsible use of artificial intelligence.

He also pointed to the fact that governments don't lead technology research like they used to ― private companies do ― and they often do not have the tools to assess technology because these companies frequently do not share research data on their innovations and potential dark side. He referred to the Wall Street Journal article that found Instagram led young teens with eating disorders to actually eat less.

"If it weren’t for a whistleblower we would have never known about this internal research. This is highly problematic," said Prof Marabelli.

Gareth Stubbs is a former UK police officer who now lectures at Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Rabdan Academy

How might the metaverse be policed?

What would policing in the metaverse look like? First, the platforms could use online tools and artificial intelligence to detect errant behaviour. Meta even introduced a tool to try to stop bad behaviour where people can prevent others from interacting with them, but this puts the onus on users.

Another is a system similar to speed cameras where someone who breaks the rules gets a fine in the real world, while a third is the emergence of volunteer police officers similar to moderators seen on social media groups today. But what is also possible, Mr Stubbs said, is a strange new world of police officer avatars dispensing online justice.

“We might see … a police officer avatar on active patrol in much the same way as I’d be on foot patrol in Blackpool town centre," said Mr Stubbs, who spent years on the beat on council estates in Blackpool. "So it could be a visual deterrent."

We could also see “avatar jail”, because the avatar is so tied to your real life, not being allowed to use it would be a real punishment. “I know that’s a reimaging of the custody system of sorts but it doesn’t cause any physical harm to the person,” Mr Stubbs said.

“It is not technically incarceration but the boundaries are blurring. It is weird. But we will probably see the creation of a new type of policing in the metaverse. It won’t look like the old one. The challenge will be to try to figure out what it looks like.”

How the metaverse will change the world

Despite the scepticism from some quarters, investment is pouring into the metaverse. Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg this year said he envisioned a "billion people" in the metaverse spending hundreds of dollars each on digital goods. But experts caution that the VR headsets are still some way from being comfortable and it will take years before its potential to reshape sectors from education to health are seen.

"It is currently at the centre of research of what we call 'future of work'," Prof Marabelli said.

"However, the technology ... is still very immature. Mark Zuckerberg said he thinks the metaverse will be ready for the general public in five years from now. I think that a decade could be a more accurate bet. But it will come. And will change many work practices and possibly our private lives. As the internet and social media did."

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:00 PM