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The criminal police is entering the Metaverse

In October 2022, the European Criminal Police Agency (Europol) and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) each released their own reports on the Metaverse. Why? They want to enter this virtual world to experiment with it in order to better understand the ways in which it can be regulated and used by the police.

On October 18, Interpol unveiled its own metaverse during a session of its General Assembly in New Delhi, India. The delegates were lucky enough to be able to visit a virtual version of the organization’s headquarters in Lyon. Although unusual, this event is far from being a simple communication stunt. In reality, it is a big step towards the new ambition of the international police: to experience the Metaverse.

Indeed, Interpol believes that this 3D virtual world is not only “the next step in the development of the Internet” but will also “inevitably impact existing criminal threats” and “generate new forms of crime,” as stated in the “Interpol Technology Assessment Report on Metaverse.”

Thus for the organization, getting involved in the Metaverse is a necessity to better understand its potential consequences. As Madan Oberoi, Interpol’s Director General of Technology and Innovation, explained, “the understanding of the metaverse by the police necessarily involves experimentation.” This is also the conviction of Europol.

The report from the European law enforcement agency explains that “Law enforcement needs to build experience in the metaverse and should find a way to make use of these private experiences, as they provide invaluable insight to make sense of what is happening and accurately assess new developments.”

In spite of their differences, the two criminal police organizations have, at the same time, the common will to understand the Metaverse thanks to a similar method: that of entering it to experiment it. Reading their reports, this common will seems to be directed by the same purpose: to anticipate the different crimes that can be committed within this virtual space, in order to plan an adapted response, and to understand the ways in which it can be used as a tool for the police.

Anticipating crimes to better fight them

“Keeping in mind that historically law enforcement was generally slower in developing capabilities for digitally committed crimes, we should as soon as possible begin preparing for the emergence of the metaverse from a law enforcement perspective,” explain the authors of the Europol report. And for good reason, the crimes (known as metacrimes) that can be committed in this virtual world are so numerous that police services must anticipate them in order to better fight them.

Money laundering, scams, identity theft, sexual harassment, pedophilia, terrorism development, disinformation, counterfeiting, data theft, etc. These are all crimes that the reports identify in order to analyze the ways in which they could be committed within the Metaverse. For example, the Europol report states that this virtual world risks creating “new opportunities for terrorist organizations” in their methods of recruitment and influence thanks to the immersive technologies it uses.

He even points out that some of them may be tempted to create their own virtual state such as a “virtual Caliphate or white supremacist state” allowing their members to “live their virtual lives according to rules” that contradict those of “the society in which they live in the physical world.” In addition, he also explains that terrorists will likely use the Metaverse to train their new recruits in immersive environments with purpose-built scenarios.

Also, in addition to anticipating metacrimes, the reports provide some (often abstract) solutions to repress them. In order to avoid identity theft resulting in an avatar being run by someone other than the person it represents (which can be problematic if it commits a metacrime), the Europol study recommends that platforms implement “a very strong identification procedure”. This would also “provide trust between users, as well as provide law enforcement with the means to investigate crimes committed” in the metaverse.

As for acts similar to sexual assault between avatars, the European agency remains cautious. Given that without physical acts there is no sexual abuse in the criminal sense, the agency explains that civil society will have to take over the subject to decide what should be considered deviant in this area. This is in line with Interpol’s position that there is an “urgent need for laws that criminalize” acts that cannot be condemned with the legal arsenal made for the physical world and that, nevertheless, “cause harm in or through the Metaverse”. Thus, the international organization recommends “filling the legislative and regulatory gaps to allow criminalization”.

However, there are still important limits to the possibilities of repressing metacrimes, as explained by Europol. First, since virtual worlds will undoubtedly multiply, it will be difficult to control them all as the police can do in the physical world by “patrolling the streets”. Secondly, it will be necessary to monitor not written content as on current social media, but the behavior of avatars which are not only more ephemeral than text, but also more dependent on their context.

Finally, the ephemeral nature of interactions between avatars will make it more difficult to gather evidence in the event of metacrimes and to determine “the reality experienced by all parties involved.” Fortunately, however, the metaverse also brings its share of “advantages” for the police.

A tool for the criminal police

When Interpol unveiled its Metaverse, experts from the organization taught participants to screen passengers in a virtual airport. This shows how effective the virtual world can be as a tool for training police officers, by confronting them with situations they may experience in the course of their duties. The reports advocate using it to reconstruct scenes of crimes committed in the physical world in order to train police officers in criminal identification techniques and to assist justice.

Indeed, this would allow judges and jurors, thanks to the “creation of an immersive environment for the criminal justice system”, to relive the crime scene they have to analyze during a trial in order to better understand it. Also, once convicted, criminals could be subjected to measures to put them in the place of their victim in the Metaverse in order to develop their empathy through immersive technologies.

The Metaverse could also be used as an immersive training tool for forensic investigations, as Interpol’s Metaverse already allows, but also for crisis management through simulated situations. In spite of all these possibilities, caution remains the order of the day: “At the origin of discoveries, there is always an El Dorado, a road to India, a philosopher’s stone, a question that is too big, a myth that only the enlightened dare to talk about without smiling”, as the physicist Roland Omnès used to say.

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