Policing and Firefighting: Security On The Grid


Last night while surfing the Second Life forums I noticed a familiar-sounding thread title: “Grid Under Attack“. Seems as if the availability of free account sign-ups has brought its share of script kiddies and griefers (or maybe just made it easier for repeat offenders to get new accounts). And like the last one, this was an attack of the self-replicating (and poorly-textured) spheres; a rather simplistic but dynamic bit of programming which probably makes it intriguing for noobs. For anyone who’s wondering what a simple computer virus looks like in a virtual world, the above image (snapped in-world by SL resident Alyssa Bijoux) is a pretty good example.

Unlike the last grid attack however, this one was contained in an interesting fashion: Linden Lab created a “firebreak“. In other words, to prevent the self-replicating objects from bouncing their way across borders into uninfected regions (each computer server/sim borders on another server), they simply cut off access (or as described over on Clickable Culture, they erected a “virtual firewall” – I like that). You can see the fireline on the image of the virtual world map (courtesy SL resident Broken Templar) here –

Now this is all well and good, but the truth of the matter is that this attack was about as unsophisticated as they come. I like the solution, but I have little doubt griefers will get more creative; there’s nothing stopping someone from creating a number of strategically-placed “timebombs”. What was really needed was more drastic action, and it appears to have finally come. From an announcement today by Ginsu Linden over on the Second Life forum:

In the last month there have been several attacks in which users of Second Life have intentionally released objects or taken actions intended to disrupt activity in the Second Life grid. These attacks result in substantial real-world economic harm, and Linden Lab intends to protect its interests using all legal means.

Although most people using Second Life are enjoying the fun and creativity that the platform provides, a few malicious individuals are intentionally acting to impair some or all of the Second Life grid. Please note that personal and account information of these individuals will be disclosed to appropriate law enforcement agencies for further investigation, including U.S. state and federal authorities and agencies in applicable international jurisdictions.

Now things are getting interesting. Let’s see how this pans out. This may be just the sort of protective action that convinces real world companies to poke their toes in the virtual water.

2 thoughts on “Policing and Firefighting: Security On The Grid

  1. why would this ‘convince real world companies to poke their toes in the virtual water?’ Sorry if I’ve missed the point, but this is interesting.

  2. Let me explain my reasoning.

    It’s relatively expensive to get into the tightly regulated virtual space of, say, “The Matrix Online” or “Planetside”. There aren’t many avenues to entry. Against that expenditure companies have to weigh the ROI of reaching an audience that will, in all likelihood, not want to have everyday RL ads invading their themed game. Articles out now say players are okay with ads, and I’d agree. But what isn’t hammered home is that players want ads that fit their themed world; which sometimes translates to additional expense for the creation of highly-customized advertising which fits that world. So the risk-to-reward ratio doesn’t always look very attractive. Companies may as well invest in brand-centric advertainment like BMW did with its short films, or Mitsubishi did with it’s free online racing game (which really sucked, btw). The costs probably aren’t that much more, and the potential audience is both greater and probably more receptive.

    Now look at an effectively unregulated virtual world like Second Life (which arguably has more in common with what we might expect the future 3D internet to become). There’s nothing stopping anyone from advertising a real product in that space at remarkably little cost (some residents already advertise pirated Hollywood movies which are viewable inworld). However that low barrier to entry and creative freedom has a down side: there is the risk of having residents grief the advertising. Unlike MMORPG’s, a virtual world like Second Life offers both the ability to create advertising content and an almost unlimited ability to grief someone’s advertising content; and importantly to be able do so under the guise of an outwardly anonymous persona. If, for example, Sony is advertising inside “Planetside”, there’s little chance of someone creating automated flying genitalia that circle their ad, urinate on it as they fly by, and chant “Suck my DRM, Sony”. That would be a very likely scene in Second Life… if there were ads for Sony inworld. This is very “Wild West”, and I imagine a lot of companies would be hesitant to expose their brand this way (I’d argue that their brand is already exposed, but it’s unfamiliar turf for them and so I understand their hesitance).

    Assuming a company has gotten on the fence about whether or not to venture into a space like Second Life given all of the above, there’s an additional reason to hesitate investing in such an effort: grid crashers. If there are people out there who get their kicks indiscriminantly crashing the whole virtual world, then advertising in that world is pointless. The grid has to be stable. Period.

    Up til now there’s been an understandable hesitance to pursue these kinds of grid-crashing griefers. Cash-strapped developers have their own risk-to-reward ratio with which to contend. A company like Linden Lab doesn’t have Sony’s or Microsoft’s or even Blizzard’s resources. They can’t easily pursue offenders (many of whom might be in some unregulated corner of the globe). Also, big companies are free to run a tight ship and players in those games expect it to ensure consistent gameplay. A company like Linden Lab hosting an inherently inconsistent virtual space like Second Life (i.e. there is no “gameplay”) has to wear oversized kidgloves when dealing with subscribers. Besides being a small developer’s bread-and-butter, any move against residents regarded as overly heavy-handed by other residents could spoil sensitive customer-developer relations and drive users away. Not good when growing the base is critical to future success.

    But circumstances are changing rapidly and some intriguing possibilities are opening up. And now, by finally legally pursuing a grid-crasher, Linden Lab is sending a clear signal: it’s safe to do business in Second Life. And I know that for my own efforts, that’s a big deal.

    Let’s see what happens.

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