Big Brother Linden is Watching You!

by Alphaville Herald on 21/08/05 at 6:21 pm

Big Brother — more demonic and horrifying than even Orwell could have imagnied. (pic stolen from Pirate Cotton’s site)

There’s been some buzz on the forums lately about the extent to which the Lindens monitor convos in SL. I’ve always just assumed that in-game communications are unsafe, but perhaps that is a bit of paranoia I picked up on TSO. Meanwhile, former Herald prodigy Neal Stewart has blogged the issue, and as usual we have ripped off his story and reposted it here. Read on for your latest dose of Neal.

“He’s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”

– Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

During a casual conversation in Second Life recently, a friend told me something which strikes me as, well, a pretty big deal.

I consider this person to be a source you can rely on. Their claim is something that I have never actually heard another resident suggest. If they’re right, the implications seem to change the face of what law, privacy and government mean in Second Life. Will privacy advocates wring their hands in mass hysteria and reach for their tinfoil? Will griefers and criminals across the grids tremble in fear?

The claim is this:

Every word you speak in Second Life via chat or instant messages, is logged by Linden Lab. Not 30-minute logs. Not day logs. Logs that go back at least as far as last year. Possibly further.

Now, it may or may not be true. Although it’s incredible, it does seem logistically possible.

So I posted a Hotline to Linden question (note: the resident I mentioned in the question is not the friend who made the logging claim). Robin Linden replied: ‘Logs for chat and IM aren’t permanent, although I can’t say how long we keep them’.

You can’t be certain whether Robin physically doesn’t know how long they keep them or whether their policy prevents her from revealing it. I think it’s safe to assume the latter. Policy-wise, there’s obvious reasons why they won’t be specific.

Less firmly, my friend also suggests that Linden Lab may log even more detailed information than just chat. Possibly everything from object rezzes to gesture triggers. The works.

To my mind, the first claim seems plausible but the second beggars belief. In any case, it presents an interesting opportunity to think about what these could mean for our second lives and the future of the metaverse itself.


Section 8.2 of the Second Life Terms of Service:

“You acknowledge and agree that Linden , in its sole discretion, may track, record, observe or follow any and all of your interactions within the Service.”

Whether we’re pottering along at Tringo, slinging arguments at a Thinker’s discussion or trying to find a pair of sunglasses that will go well with our dick, we’re always vaguely aware of that privacy clause. We know that if we were somehow to stray into CS/TOS-violation territory, that a Linden might materialize behind us with their x-ray vision or that an employee at their desk in San Francisco might receive an IM and invisibly bring up our account details.

In the privacy debate, the naysayers argue, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about”. But I wonder if other residents would be at least vaguely disconcerted at the thought that every single utterance they have made in the past 8 months for example, is nestled away on a storage medium somewhere, in an office, like a fly frozen in amber? All trivial fond records, an indelicate joke about nuns, a whispered aside about how god-awful your best friend’s new dress is. But the serious stuff too: Personal confessions, double-lives, revelations at an in-world alcoholics anonymous meeting, a RL affair, a tearful dislosure of childhood sexual abuse, embarassing medical problems, intimate exchanges, shared Real Life phone numbers, work and financial details. All frozen in time.

Is SL any different than the rest of cyberspace in this regard? How so?

Whatever the answer, as a hypothetical it’s interesting to ask yourself if you would be willing to sacrifice your privacy if it meant that every act of harassment, every Terms of Service violation, every act of fraud and real-world crime could be traced and examined with almost God-like precision. Griefers, copyright-thiefs, con-artists, paedophiles – the whole spectrum under complete scrutiny. Would you make this sacrifice in Second Life? Are you already making it?

Crimes and Evidence-Gathering

Suppose that my friend’s second claim is true – that everything from object rezzes to gesture triggers are logged. Imagine that Linden Lab were to investigate the virtual-world equivalent of the Kennedy Assassination. In their God-mode recreation of the event, they can determine the timings, they can tell you what the cloud coverage was like on that day, they can tell you where the sun was, the wind velocity and direction, the ground height and slope. They can tell you the exact color of the bullet, and can give you a complete account of the physics that took place – velocity, mass, gravity, energy, the list goes on. And that’s just a tiny sample of all the relevant information. They could close the case on the chat-logs alone.

That’s just a hypothetical example. There’s a slew of real ones available. The really virtual and the really real. Everything from allegations of in-world Nazi death-camp re-creations, to TSO’s virtual child prostitutes and RL physical abuse, virtual child porn in SL, the recent client-side hack and 2 alleged land-ownership group-dispute/scams (1 and 2).

With its limited knowledge, the public (myself included) has never shied away from making its own rulings on these controversies. But would it change things if we were to learn that Linden Lab was infinitely better-informed about abuse and TOS violations than we had previously thought? That perhaps they have ruled on a hundred decisions already, the ones above for example, with 20/20 hindsight, never once revealing the extent of their evidence? Would residents actually welcome our new elephant-memory overlords?

But what about the blindspots? Private emails and forums, IRC and instant messenger sessions. Are these significant enough to be worried about? To what extent is griefing possible outside of the Second Life client itself? And if so, is it even a legitimate area for LL concern? It seems apparent that if extensive in-world logs do exist, the Lindens would not trawl through them to investigate every single abuse-report. The limited time available, and the sheer volume of information, would make this prohibitive. But will the knowledge that it is technically possible, strike fear into the hearts of griefers and criminals in Second Life? If so, will they shift their tongue-forkery off the grid and into the spaces where LL has no jurisdiction – instant-messenger programs and IRC? And will they meet there the paranoid, refugee champions of privacy and free speech? Or just all the residents taking advantage of SL-denied communication features like temporary-group chats and stealth settings (offline status)?

Government Law and Order

One of the most hotly-debated topics among Second Life residents has been in-world government. Residents ask whether Linden Lab can accurately be described as ‘the government’ within Second Life. They discuss whether residents might play a role in a global, in-world government or whether they should they look to ways of forming their own. And they wonder whether these resident-based governments could actually have any clout.

A few of them also wonder about ‘resident review panels’.

‘Resident review panels’ are an aspect of the Second Life legal system that have been announced publicly but are shrouded in secrecy. You can read a bit about them here. In brief, LL chooses 25 active residents at random and sends them the anonymous case-history of an alleged serial offender. The review panel lets each resident vote yes or no on whether the offender should be banned, and provides them with a blank line in which to write a comment. LL reserves the right to overrule the majority decision and panel participants are asked not to share the details of the case with others.

One of the concerns I have often heard from the few people who actually know about these resident review panels, is that the alleged offender has no chance to present a defense. LL’s response seems to be that the facts of the violations themselves are not open to question. All they’re interested in finding out is whether the residents think that the violations warrant a permanent ban. But some residents clearly see in these review panels the seed of a complete Second Life in-world legal framework – one that involves greater resident participation.

But this new claim regarding Linden Labs’ evidence-gathering powers, casts all these law and order questions in a new light. Is a complete legal framework with judges and juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys, any longer necessary (if it was before)? On the other hand, isn’t it true that court trials are not always about disputing the facts but disputing the interpretations of those facts, and the relevant laws? If so, how often might these trickier ones actually occur in Second Life?

And in any case, is a global, resident-involved legal-system an example of ‘taking the whole metaverse thing too far’ or will they be a commonplace feature of the virtual-worlds of 2015?

Robin Linden recently posted:

We believe that police are not the preferred solution to the elimination of bad behavior and intolerance in Second Life. The mechanisms are in place for dealing with people who are infringing on others’ rights. Be sure that we are continually refining them and looking to find ways to make them even better, but adding police isn’t the means we are considering. First, it isn’t scalable, and second, we think that top-down solutions from Linden Lab are not in the best interest of Second Life.

Give us suggestions for ways to improve the abuse management system, or to improve land control tools which will ensure griefing is either unprofitable or no fun.

OK, you have my vote but…

/me edges towards Yahoo Messenger.

6 Responses to “Big Brother Linden is Watching You!”

  1. No one of consequence

    Aug 21st, 2005

    Ultimately anything you do on the ‘net may be recorded at some point, but it’s not often that anyone cares enough to look at what you’re doing. This is especially true with larger services such as email or IMs – there simply isn’t enough time nor motivation for an admin to play peeping tom with your data. Automatic data collection for marketting / data mining purposes yes, but monitoring your juicy gossip? Nah, especially when that could easily get a professional admin sacked.

    On the other side of the coin, smaller private servers (in my experience) require massive amounts of trust in the operator. Combine the fanaticism it takes to run a private game/chat server out of pocket with a personal connection to the players on the server itself, and the motivation to spy on its users is very hard to resist. I wouldn’t trust some admins I’ve known farther than I could throw them (not far, considering how fat they were), and some have even dragged out ‘incriminating’ logs when forum arguments weren’t going their way. Logs on small servers are almost always bad news.

    Honestly, you’re going to find the same results anywhere you go on the ‘net, regardless of what the service is. The real question you should ask yourself is: How much do you trust the server admins, and how much interest would they take in your actions on the server? Is this service large enough where the admins will give a damn about all that hot furry sex you’ve been having?

  2. Fact Faerie

    Aug 21st, 2005

    Guess you can say this is “part” of this article, since there was a link on it, tho it is a reponse to another article that was closed.
    So some think SL is just a fantasy world and some think it is not…real or not, there are “real” people playing it. I know some of you mentioned how the “age” makes a difference, well it dont on this. Porn is porn and child porn no matter how, where, when or why is still illegal…a few even said cause SL is a “fantasy” world that it is ok…well it isnt, it is still illegal and you can still serve federal criminal crime for it. I can say this for I can also back it up with facts and the Law.
    “Child pornography has been defined under federal statute as a visual depiction of a minor (child younger than 18) engaged in sexually explicit conduct ”

    You can find more of it here…

    “Under federal law, child pornography1 is defined as a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, photograph, film, video, or computer or computer-generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct”

    Please read before and get informed. Before you commit a crime that could have you serving time for playing in a “fantasy” world.

    Also I would appreciate if you could post this so others can read and see, so they can be informed the right way also instead of going by opinions and fads.

    And also Im one of those people that WILL report…So I may not know the AVI that the article is about, but if they and SL dont clean and delete the stuff, then I will report that person and let the federal governments decide if they should take action or not.
    I even got my friends to report online child porn.

    Good day
    Fact Faerie

  3. Prokofy Neva

    Aug 21st, 2005

    No matter how much they track, they cannot always recreate context, and they cannot read people’s minds and understand their motivations. That eludes them. They can get the “facts” of this or that case, but there is a reason that tape recordings are not admissable in RL courts often — they can be misinterpreted easily without the context.

    I raised this issue of their surveillance of us a few weeks ago on Clickable Culture re: economic info and Tony’s response was basically that he didn’t think the Lindens were organized to make use of all this stuff. If they don’t keep a copy of SL itself, i.e. a copy of the world the way anyone running a server would keep back up tapes, do they really keep 8 months of chat logs?

    Among the many issues involved is the recording and keeping of economic information. The Lindens know exactly what is sold at each telehub, by whom, to whom, and when. We can partly get a window into this through “last 10 things sold in world”. They can tell who is lying about their income, who is getting bolstered by the Zeppi Schlegel dispensor from GOM, who really makes money, who says they make money and doesn’t, really, etc. They have all that. *And knowing that, they can throw the game, and no doubt do, because they are social engineers at heart.*

    It really is like living in a sci-fi novel for real.

  4. Urizenus

    Aug 22nd, 2005

    it is odd that most people in SL behave like they have never been more free, but it point of fact their every word and every action (even the direction of their gaze) is available to the Lindens if they want to use it (or sell it to marketing companies). Or for that matter, if law enforcement agencies like the Department of Homeland Insecurity ask for it. Big Brother never had it this good.

  5. simone

    Aug 22nd, 2005

    In the early part of August, I got an e-mail from LL stating that two of my accounts had been temporarily suspended for what appears to have been about a half hour. The original e-mail stating this would happen was addresses to ‘quin marlin’, and the second two e-mails letting me know that they had been reinstated were addressed to the avatars proper names.

    My roomie and I have three accounts. All are on the same credit card. Only the two I use were suspended.

    When I asked a Linden about it, I was told it was a mix-up, and that it had been cleared up. No explanation was given as to why my two accounts were singled out (one of which I had not loggged in for several weeks) instead of all three on the same credit card, nor why it happened in the first place.

    Call me overly curious, but I would like to know why, what they thought they were looking for.


  6. TrannyPet Barmy

    Aug 25th, 2005

    Take it from me, i know first hand that conversations are monitored !!!!! Alot of conversations that were had between myself and some trusted associates were all quoted back to me by one of the lindens i spoke to on the phone shortly after being banned, still not enough in my mind to warrant the ban that occurred, but, all the same, they had it all.

    As for Prokofy’s comments re lindens organisation. They are organised, they caught me coming back into the game on some one else’s account(loaned legally) with a completely new mac address, they caught me and banned that account with in 24 hours.

    As far as marketing information matters go, and selling of information, i hardly see how any one has much to gain by analysing reams of generally badly written english. Even if english of this level could be anaysled to any informational level, what good would it be to any marketing company when on the most part it’s just complete lies and bs between players acting as what they wish they could be in reality.

    End of the day, whats the problem ? If you’re not doing anything wrong then surely you have nothing to hide either from SL or from law enforcement agencies.

    trannypet barmy

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