If Mike Weatherly, MP for Hove and Portslade, has his way then cyber criminals could faces charges of going equipped to steal in virtual worlds, and could face real world jail time if convicted of stealing virtual items such as swords and gold within massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG).
Weatherly is currently Intellectual Property Adviser to the Prime Minister as well as a player of highly the successful MMORPG World of Warcraft. He raised the issue in Parliament last week, asking Mike Penning, Minister of State for Justice, if he would “bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that cyber criminals who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value received the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value”.
David Crozier, who is based at Queen’s University Belfast’s Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), says that gamers spend considerable sums of money in addition to dedicating many hours of gameplay amassing virtual gold and in-game goods, making theft within virtual worlds and gaming environments a serious problem.
He said: “Stealing these virtual goods can produce real world benefit to criminals as they can be resold and the proceeds cashed out into virtual currencies such as Bitcoin via illicit online market places. Bitcoins, when used with virtual currency laundry services, are virtually untraceable and can be used to buy real world goods and services online or can be exchanged for hard cash through numerous exchanges.”
MMORPGs are hugely popular around the globe with hundreds of millions of players and predicted revenues for 2014 in excess of $8 billion. This represents a huge financial target for cyber criminals.
To date there have been isolated cases of individuals being convicted of in-game theft around the world using existing laws. In 2012, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the theft conviction of a youth who stole another players’ possessions in popular online fantasy game RuneScape. In that case the court ordered the offender to perform 144 hours of community service.
Last year a group of Chinese hackers who illegally obtained World of Warcraft accounts for the purposes of virtual gold mining where sentenced to two years in jail for their crimes. Weatherly says that the Government should issue new guidance regarding the application of existing laws to this type of criminality, rather than rush to draft new legislation.
Individuals who are found to be in possession of exploit kits, which are to be used to compromise victims machines through the deployment of malware, could be deemed to be “going equipped for stealing” under the Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 and sentenced for up to three years.
Crozier warned: “Any new law will have to take account of player versus player (PvP), a type of legitimate multiplayer interactive conflict within games between two or more live participants where theft of virtual goods is accepted practice.
“Furthermore, this type of online theft is truly global so legislating in the UK alone will do little to reduce the instances and impact of this type of theft. Multi-jurisdictional collaborative investigations by law enforcement agencies are required to bring offenders to justice.”
“This type of crime is particularly under-reported to law enforcement so it is very hard to get a full understanding of the scale and cost to individuals globally. Until the victims start speaking up in greater numbers, it is unlikely that the substantial reso
urces required to catch and jail these criminals will be invested by Governments.”