Archive for the ‘Crime’ Tag

Spooks on the Grid

I’m catching up on the news while in the middle of yet another move — my third in four months, but more on that another time. For now, the focus is on how the Real World keeps pokin’ into Second Life in less than savory ways.

The Washington Post (signup may be required) reported on February 6 on how intelligence analysts are beginning to worry about the chance of virtual worlds such as SL being used by criminals and terrorists as meeting sites, laundromats for money, and training and recruiting grounds. The story tells how the CIA counters the threat by purchasing a few private simulations as training and “unclassified meeting” locations. (The article is unclear on the subject, but uses the term “islands,” which suggests that these enclaves are on our Grid.)

Wagner James Au cites the Post story in his New World Notes piece, following which he checked the blog of our beloved Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cory Ondrejka, the former CTO of Linden Lab. Cory insists that Second Life counters extremism by providing a place for multiple viewpoints to be shared. Wagner wonders about this if someone is “already predisposed toward Islamist extremism.” Wagner also questions Cory’s contention that money funneled through SL and the Lindex could be traced once it hits a Real World bank, noting that numerous small transactions can probably slip under the radar.

Though I don’t really see how you could train a terrorist cell in SL to blow up a tank with an IED, I wouldn’t much discount either side’s arguments. Yes, it would be very difficult to smuggle large amounts of money through the Grid banking and exchange systems. However, the salami method of slicing a large sum up into many smaller sums is well known — I give away no secrets here — and could be used. It would take numerous people (or using bots, as Wagner suggests) and a lot of determination; but determination is a hallmark of an extremist mindset. The one thing that occurs to me is that even a large amount of small traffic going to a single person, or a set of persons, could raise a spike on a statistical examination of traffic, but this can be overcome by sending to multiple individuals, or an organizational account.

The “meeting place” scenario is much more viable. Picture this: your cell buys an estate island, well isolated if possible from encroachment by other estates being built. (There is lots of open sea, if you check your Map at max out zoom.) You declare the whole island private by using available lockdown measures, or buying a security package to boot someone home in 5-10 seconds after approach. Build your “conference center” at least 25 meters in from the edges, just to make sure you’re not “overheard.” Set up however you want, from quick-and-dirty cubes to sit on — a virtual-physical symbol of the oppression you are under — to whatever level of comfort you desire, and issue invitations to those you wish to attend. You will still face normal Grid problems like rolling restarts and outages, but you’re set to roll beyond that.

Unless someone knows that you’re operating in this place, and knows who you are, there is not a high probability of your being overseen. Nobody can approach your island without ramming into the infamous red “No Entry” lines, or your security package will give them the boot before they get more than a few sentences of whatever your group is saying. Their only hope would be to (hopefully!) get a court order — again, if they know or suspect strongly who you are — and have Linden Lab tap your datastream to capture what you send and receive. Even then, unless I misunderstand the technology, the “conversation” may be a trifle one-sided, and important information may be lost.

I don’t say that this is something to leap at in panic. But this is something to consider carefully, and take appropriate, advised action on. “Advised” because it is far too easy to abuse whatever authority you have or are given in your zeal. But we need to keep this in mind.

SUPPLEMENTAL, 1:24 p.m. local:

…[T]he Post article raises some intriguing, though perhaps overblown, claims about the ease to which anonymity can be abused. For example, records are not kept of communication between avatars, which could lead to suspicious activities between nefarious individuals. These types of situations have the government nervous, and interested in gaining access to the servers of 3-D and role-playing games.

These issues are not unique to 3D worlds. They’re not even unique to the Internet. A lot of these espionage/criminal claims are a lot like the early warning bells about the Internet, and probably at one point in time about telephones. Basically, it’s government saying “these new technologies scare us, stuff that scares us is bad, and so being scared we have a right to monitor servers and private conversations between individuals so we feel, well, less scared.”

UPDATE, Feb. 15, 7:15 a.m.:

  • I just discovered Gwyneth Llewelyn’s take on the matter. She decries the Post article as alarmist:

Also, this is “old news” and vastly discussed in previous years. It’s incredible how some journalists, in their eagerness to condemn virtual worlds and ruin the virtual economy and virtual societies, recycle “bad news” from the past, change the order of the paragraphs, add a few more quotes (often cited out of context), and republish exactly the same article that was written 10 or 20 years ago.

In my next incarnation, I wish I were reborn as a Luddite journalist. One could make a career out of it, just writing one single article for my whole life, and doing a search & replace on a few words every time a new paradigm-shifting technology is released…

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Lost in a Den of Thieves?

(I was going to publish this yesterday, but the Real World interfered, and I’ve lost some of my planned links.  Ah, well….  Also, a caution:  just a touch of strong language below, but justifiable in the circumstances.  Read on….)

The latest business crisis on the Grid stems from, not to put too fine a meaning on it, out and out piracy. In-world designers are suffering from more, and more aggressive, batches of slime mold who harvest skins and fashions, then reproduce them and sell them at a tithe of what the original designer charges. According to the lead of Eric Reuters’ story, one Jolly Roger, filled with the sheerest gall and covered in brass, actually sent alts into a designer’s grand opening, shouting to the crowd that the same stuff was available at his store at a fraction of the price.

It’s evident that the labels of Second Life are experiencing what has plagued RL labels for years, if not decades: the cheap knockoff industry. Name companies have fought for many a day against Asian makers and importers of fake Rolex watches, Gucci handbags and Chanel sunglasses, not to mention the entrenched battle Microsoft pits against pirated versions of Windows. (Remember pictures from the RL news of piles of knockoffs being smashed under steamrollers?) This war now spills over to the virtual economy — and it’s a lot harder to fight. We do possess the intellectual property rights to our work, and presumably the textures we use. But the only way we can wage the battle is through filing complaints based on the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — something the many international Residents have a hard time doing. Or lawsuits can be filed; but, if the perpetrator lives in another country, that brings a whole new factor to the equation. Other aspects can be imagined, of course; I leave them as an exercise.

When it comes to the question of individual downloaders vs. music corporations or movie studios, I probably shouldn’t talk myself; but I tend to lean toward the individual. The companies’ policy has been for years to milk every penny they can out of the consumer, with merchandise that is dramatically overpriced relative to the cost of producing it. (I believe this; I work in the retail end of the industry.) They seem either congenitally unable to realize that they can make up in volume what they would “lose” by lowering their list prices, or are simply too greedy in upper echelons to give the consumer a break. The designers of Second Life, however, are not megacorps, despite their appearance of being so. Any Resident who applies himself/herself to designing and using tools such as Paint Shop Pro can afford to buy a quarter- or half-island and erect as palatial a store as Nicky Ree or Elika Tiramisu. These people are small business people, just like the pirates; the difference is that they’re playing fair and square, by the rules of society and the laws of their countries.  And, most importantly, the ambition and drive to make something of themselves, as well as (perhaps) that thing that burns in the craw and heart of true artists — the need, physically and emotionally, to create.

The ones who are stealing from them are thieves, louts, lazy-assed oafs and caitiff rogues, plain and simple.  Their only concern is to make a fistful of lindens, and a few lindens more, and they don’t care how they do it, or who they hurt in the process.  Their vision is focused only on the short-term gain, and how long they can milk it — and, in that, they aren’t too different from the RIAA’s member companies.  Their thefts kill the market for the original work, smother the drive for creativity (that the thieves are, ironically, relying on for their stolen goods!), and contribute nothing to the community except pollution of spirit.  They and all their kind, if you’ll excuse the passion, are an accursed breed, and should be shunned as such.

You can help on this:

  • Deal only with reputable merchants — though not just the big names, please; a small creator/merchant can be just as honest.
  • If you spot someone ripping off a known skin or design, report them to the actual creator, especially the name and location they’re operating on.  Also report them to Linden Lab, to back up and document any claims the artist may make under DMCA.  Snapshots can document the situation; in this case, remember to keep the interface on, to collect as much information as possible.
  • Vote on SVC-676, “Stopping texture theft and stop spreading of stolen items.”  Remember that you’ll need to log in with your Second Life name and password.  The process is not difficult at all, and lets you exercise community involvement and pressure on LL to take action.

In an ideal world, real or virtual, we wouldn’t need to deal with such wolf’s-heads, for they would not exist.  Sadly, even here in Second Life, we are faced with thievery.  Let’s help in the best ways we can, support true creativity as well as legitimate commerce, and drive the thieves away.

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Besides the Reuters article,  others have tackled the problem on their own sites and blogs.  A no-doubt partial list:

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