Hiding a secret in a virtual world

Yesterday, I talked about ways to hide a secret in the internet or web. One of the newer ways that is attracting attention is to hide a secret in a virtual world.

People usually start by thinking about hosted worlds such as Second Life. In these environments, there is some level of exposure because the hosting organization can see everything that is happening, and can prevent certain kinds of bad things from happening (in a limited way — griefers seem to be abe to do a lot without much obstacle).

However, new `open source’ virtual world environments are rapidly being developed, and these provide more accessible ways to hide secrets. For example, the Multiverse allows anyone to host a virtual world, and virtual worlds can be connected to one another via teleport stations that allow a user to jump from one to another (and also to jump about within a single world). A virtual world is like a web site, and a teleport is like a click on a hyperlink. Such worlds are accessible by standard clients run by users.

At this moment, there is a lot of overhead in learning how to put together such a world; and both servers and clients need a lot of horsepower and bandwidth to create a useable experience. But this will come, of course.

Communicating in such virtual worlds has the advantages of communicating in the real world, plus some extras. Two individuals can `meet’ and `communicate’ in the virtual world just as they could in the real world. Of course, the owner of the virtual world can log what happens, but when such worlds become as common as web sites, some worlds can be maintained for some apparently innocent purpose, but actually to enable covert communication.

It’s also possible to have avatars in the virtual world that can dispense information when they are given a suitable passphrase, of the “The geese fly south” variety; but communicate innocently to others. So an avatar can hold a secret and give it to anyone who knows how to access it. This isn’t limited to a small amount of text either — movie screens that play arbitrary content can be created and played in response to a passphrase.

In the real world, people can be followed and their communications intercepted. This is much more difficult in a network of virtual worlds. First, teleportation means that an avatar can move around, even within a world, in a way that is hard to track as an outsider. Second, communication can happen at a distance; an avatar can `talk’ to another even when they aren’t virtually close. So communication can happen without an obvious meeting.

At present, AFAIK, it is not possible to leave objects in Multiverse worlds for collection by others; but this functionality might well be adopted.

One of my students has been building a virtual world representation of a web site. Details about some of these features can be found
here.

There are going to be messy legal issues as well. It seems that the default interpretation of U.S. 4th Amendment protections is based on `expectation’ of privacy. This is a poor basis for argument given rapidly changing technology and different levels of understanding by ordinary people about how technology works. But it’s conceivable that a virtual world will acquire an expectation of privacy, even though it’s a public space.

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