The dingo stole my avatar

An uneasy calm hangs over Second Life this morning after two days of protests over the appearance of the CopyBot replicator. Yesterday, as many as 600 shopkeepers closed their stores in protest, demanding that the online world’s owner, Linden Lab, take action to protect the integrity of their virtual property. The striking merchants, according to Information Week, waved signs scrawled with slogans like “Stop Buying. Stop Selling. Start Protesting” and “Linden Lab once again did hurt our world.”

Meanwhile, outside agitator Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, raised the specter of an outright revolution in which residents would seize control of Second Life from Linden Lab. “Second Life’s management is doing an exemplary job of coping with this,” wrote Doctorow, “but benevolent dictatorships aren’t the same thing as democracies. If a game is going to declare that its players are citizens who own property, can the company go on ‘owning’ the game?”

Raph Koster, too, sees the CopyBot dispute as signaling a larger struggle: “what’s happening is a small-scale social crisis that brings into sharp relief the split between the hacker-ethic-libertarian-info-must-be-free ethos that underpins much of the technology of virtual worlds, and the rampant commercialism that has actually enabled its embodiment. What we have here is a case of bone fighting blood.” He concludes, darkly:

As long as Second Life creators are relying on creating content like textures and models … they will continue to face the same dilemmas as any other content industry. They will be copied. They will be ripped off. They will find their market prices falling. They will agitate for DRM. They will form lobbies with the analogue to a government, and argue that they are in fact the primary cultural contributors in the system. They will, in the end, come to embody everything about the broader, commercial Web that they fled to Second Life in order to escape.

But the arrival in Second Life of the CopyBot replicator hasn’t just produced a commercial and a political crisis. It’s brought an existential crisis as well. Because CopyBot can clone entire avatars as well as their possessions, people fear losing their virtual selves. Their sense of what I’ve termed “avatar anxiety” is deepening. Writes resident Harle Armistice in a comment on the official Second Life blog:

I’m sorry, but this isn’t just about sales … I have a unique av that I made for myself. It’s me, it’s my work, it’s part of my persona. I’ve been wearing it for ages and I will be wearing it likely until the day SL either goes down or I can’t log in anymore. Or I would be, under normal circumstances … I am terrified to wear my own content because there’s a script out there that any random user can run to steal my stuff if I do.

Business Week is reporting that “savvy CEOs” are beginning to “hang out in Second Life,” “orienting themselves around what could emerge as the corporate environment of the future.” IBM chief Sam Palmisano, for instance, proudly declares, “I have my own avatar.” In fact, the magazine notes, Palmisano has two Second Life avatars, “a casual Sam and a buttoned-down one.”

What’s going to happen, one wonders, when a CopyBot-armed anarchist comes up to one of the “real” fake Sams and replicates him? It may be a dream of CEOs to be able to clone themselves for posterity, but would they be happy about being cloned by someone else, someone who might then inhabit their virtual identity and use it to spread mischief and confusion? I can’t imagine a captain of industry being sanguine about seeing a copy of himself flying through the air wearing only a g-string or emerging from a virtual sex shop bearing a mammoth Steely Dan. I would recommend that, until the situation becomes clearer, any CEO entering Second Life bring along bodyguard avatars to fend off any possible replicator attack. No company wants to find itself saying, “An imposter avatar did hurt our world.”

11 thoughts on “The dingo stole my avatar

  1. Graham Hill


    It is turning into a William Gibson novel.

    Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

    Graham Hill

  2. thatedeguy

    I’m not sure why anyone is surprised about this happening. Similar bots have sprung up in mass quantities in online communities and games before. Diablo II, the game that ushered in the MMORPG dealt with many(lots and lots) of bots that could create copies of everything from weapons to items. Each time they eliminated one bot, a new one sprung up.

    Does anyone believe it will be different with SL?

  3. _Jon

    I have designed and coded online transaction software.

    To think that Linden Labs did not implement some form of serial numbering on every component within SL (especially the Avatars!) is just incredible. Yes, it’s a huge database. But the game is huge – one more data field isn’t that much.

    In addition, the server is *trusting* the client with the data security! That is another *bad* mistake.

    Rule 1: Nothing sent from the client is to be trusted.

    Rule 1a: Test or check every piece of data sent from the client.

    These guys at LL created this situation with their design. The next company to create a VW like SL will eat their lunch if they approach it from a seasoned development perspective.

    Personally, I am just floored that people with the talent needed to create SL didn’t implement these two security-related features. It’s just incredible.

    :shakes head:

  4. eas

    Online social identity theft is already quite rampant on places like myspace. “Fakers” use other people’s photos (usually attractive girls), and pass them off as their own. Somtimes they go further, cribbing other info off of profiles.

  5. Yoz

    It is indeed a fascinating issue, one that will need to be solved more by the way the community deals with it than by technology. However, I think there’s also a large amount of misunderstanding going on.

    Firstly, the identity-theft scenario painted at the end of the blog post is impossible. Stealing an avatar’s appearance and their user account are two entirely different things, and at the moment only the first is possible with Copybot. Stealing an avatar’s appearance won’t steal you their name.

    Secondly, if you’re going around copying things wildly and causing trouble, that’s griefing. SL already has plenty of ways of dealing with that.

    Plus, many objects that have sale value do so because of the functional code behind them. Copybot can’t steal that because the code doesn’t go over the wire, it stays on the server-side.

    To “_Jon”: you’re not getting how this works. It’s nothing to do with security or trust, and especially not to do with the server trusting data from the client. It’s purely about the fact that shape and texture data has to be sent over the wire, and there’s no way to avoid that, nor to stop the data being replicated en route. To quote Bruce Schneier: making digital content uncopyable is like making water not wet.

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