Spore — a new covert channel

I’ve written before about how virtual worlds present new challenges to the surveillance of bad guys. In systems such as Second Life, it’s hard to see what someone is doing inside such a virtual world (unless you’re Linden).

The situation is even worse in WWW-like virtual worlds, such as the Multiverse. Here each piece of virtual world is owned by someone, and there are teleport mechanisms (like links) to move between them. Not only can an owner provide a safe place for bad guys to meet where it’s hard to surveille them, but they can also prevent someone being followed by crashing the site after it’s been used. (This is also possible for conventional web sites which I’ll talk about in a later post.)

But new online games such as Spore open up new possibilities for communicating in hard to track ways. Spore is not really a multiplayer game, and it isn’t very obvious how much data sharing is going on. The point of the game is to build civilisations based on creating (designing) organisms which then ‘evolve’ through several stages.

Here’s the communication part. The game only works when it’s connected to the internet, and whenever a creature is created or evolves, it is uploaded to a central site, and then redistributed to the worlds of some other users.

This, by itself, would not be a very useful communication mechanism because the chances of a particular creature ending up in a particular user’s world is very small. But there is a mechanism to point to one of your ‘friends’ and get his/her creatures appearing in your world — and this provides the communication channel. Notice that the channel pulls content, which is what is needed in a covert setting. The person generating the content is the one likely to have attracted attention, so systems where that person has to overtly say whom to communicate with are less attractive for bad guys. It’s much harder to work out who might have asked for content from a channel, especially as some people who didn’t ask for it get it as well.

What kind of content can be sent along this channel? It isn’t a trivial process to transmit volumes of content. The simplest approach is to use each organism as a codeword. A more complex alternative is to use properties of organisms as alphabet symbols and send arbitrary content. And the way in which the civilization evolves can send a very simple signal about how much progress has been made on a particular task — and one that is so subtle that it is extremel hard to notice. What could be more innocent than playing a game?

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