A virtual life of crime

We usually hear about the blurred boundaries between the virtual and real Worlds in the context of youngsters smashing their car after playing online NASCAR or enacting violence as a result of immersion in graphic computer games. The story I will bring to your attention today deals with a different aspect of the virtual/real conundrum – and different demographics.

Let me introduce to you Sweetie – a 10 year old Filipina who roamed chat rooms and dating websites for 10 weeks, chatting with much older men from all over the World.

Sweetie_Cropped

These online conversations often got quite explicit – see one example below:

Sweetie_Chat

Luckily the appropriate authorities have been notified and the contact details of over 1000 men involved passed on to Interpol for investigation. One man, Scott Robert Hansen from Brisbane, Australia has already been sentenced to 2 years in prison and more arrests are likely to follow.

You may think that “virtual” angle to the story refers only to the way these interaction took place but this is not so. You see – Sweetie is not real. She is a computer avatar created by a Dutch charity Terre des Hommes for this particular sting operation. But she is not just a static image either – Sweetie could be made to interact with the men:

An app allowed for researchers to press a button to trigger one of a number of pre-programmed moves such as typing, nodding and shifting in her seat so that it looked as though there was a real girl at the other end of the keyboard 

It is hard not to feel relieved that a bunch of creeps will be eliminated from the pool of online sexual predators but one aspect of the story makes me feel uneasy:

Judge Ryrie, in sentencing said Hansen had “a protracted interest in targeting children in various ways”. The fact the girl was not real was irrelevant, she said. “If you believe that’s a nine-year-old girl, then that’s the law, that’s good enough.”

Does it really not matter that Sweetie was not real? I would have thought that had the offence involved interacting with a real child the psychological damage factor would have added to the gravity of the crime. But if we accept it then chatting with a computer-created avatar must fare as somewhat less serious. Would trying to scam Sweetie Nigerian way result in a prosecution for theft? Who would be the victim?

I do not pretend to have the answers but the ongoing intrusion of the virtual reality into our lives is both fascinating and scary.

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