Friday, March 13, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part III: Avatar Identity Theft?

Type in “online identity theft” in Google, and you’ll get a slew of results geared toward people who want to protect their real-life identities during their online escapades. What you won’t find is a whole lot about people who want to prevent their online identities from being stolen.

This mostly just shows the syntactic pitfalls of the Google search engine, but it also provides another implicit conclusion: online identities are just not that important.

Even other bloggers, like Ben Yoskovitz in his Instigator Blog, treat avatar identity theft as a marketing matter, with the conclusion that stealing from another’s “brand” in just in bad taste.

That’s it? “In bad taste?” Anyone who has been following my blog can probably agree that his stance is akin to blasphemy!

Let’s look at the implications of avatar identity theft in virtual environments like Second Life.

According to Jeremy Duffy a “computer guy” with a citizen technology web site, avatar identity theft is a serious issue. He says:

If someone gets your SL password, they can log in as you, from any computer, and do all sorts of nasty things. Pay your L$ to someone else. Say bad things to or about your girlfriend. Ruin your reputation. Never, ever, ever give your SL password to anyone, not even those closest to you. Don’t use easy-to-guess passwords, and change them frequently. And don’t allow friends and family members access to your computer.
In the immortal words of The Joker, “Why so serious?”

Well, users spend quite a bit of time making their avatars look exactly the right way. They spend real money to buy their avatars clothing, jewellery, houses and property, and put a lot of work into creating a virtual personality with which to interact with other Second Life residents.

So what happens when someone gets a hold of your password and turns your avatar into a Second Life prostitute? What if someone creates a clone of your avatar and makes it dress in attack other avatars?

Aside from the requisite outrage, users can actually feel violated if their avatars are stolen and made to do naughty things. They feel as if they were the ones who were made to do those things. In part, this is because so much of one’s self is tied up with your avatar’s identity. You put in your time and energy, your dreams and your desires, your personality and your hobbies into your avatar, and when it’s stolen, it’s emotionally almost as devastating as if your real-life identity had been stolen.
But what about if it’s the Second Life team that’s doing the stealing. That’s right—like Facebook’s bedevilled privacy policy, the Linden Lab Terms of Service grant them the right to do with your avatar whatever they see fit.

According to a Second Life blogger, Linden Lab can hijack your avatar and force it to do anything from endorsing the virtual environment to hawking Pepsi.

What ever happened to games that were just plain fun and didn’t carry the risk of one's identity being roughed up, pimped out and emotionally scarred?


  1. Thanks for the shout :)

    As for your post, you're absolutely right that losing control of an avatar is a big, big deal. How many hours does your average person put in on their MMO games (WoW etc)?

    As for not much attention, you're right that people aren't giving enough thought, but the thieves definitely are. Do you remember that story of a nasty anti-virus baked in with those digital picture frames you could buy from Costco and Best Buy?

    The only thing the virus did was steal WoW passwords. Someone obviously thought they were worth something.

  2. My point exactly. People feel almost as tied to their virtual identities as they real-life ones. This is probably because the way in which their avatars reflect their dreams and desires--things they can probably never attain in real life.

    As for the picture frame virus, well, who better than big corporations to inadvertantly shine a light onto the need for avatar identity protection. Maybe they're just waiting to peddle a product, but that's me being paranoid...