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Transparency and Privacy in Virtual Worlds

Snapshot_salon_001_1Tuesday night I attended The SL Future Salon hosted at the Electric Sheep Tower. The Future Salon is a forum of futurists speaking about topics which are pushing boundaries of social acceptance (both in the “ready for prime time” sense of the word as well as the “safe for all ages” context.) Tuesday’s topic covered the work of Mark Barrett of SLStats.com and Justin Hall who is actively working on what he calls a “Passively Multiplayer Online Game” or PMOG, which is a variation of the popular term MMOG or MMORPG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game.) MMORPGs usually encompass World of Warcraft or Everquest and their peers. The talk generally covered what the technology does moreso than what these new systems do to the concept of privacy and anonymity.

Up front, both are clever uses of data that computer users produce in various quantity each day. Some data is generated by the act of using a number of applications, a tool such as “Onlife” which Justin refers to as a tool to data-mine how one spends their computer time and what websites they may visit. Some data involves where you visit online, who you send email to, who is on your buddy list and perhaps what you send and what you say. For those of us who play in online virtual spaces, it may include data about where we travel and how long we spend at each destination. As computer storage becomes less scarce more of behavior-colored data collects in applications and operating systems. Website operators already mine data from user visits to refine their advertising and features. Outside of the home computer realm, we know that our phone calls are logged for billing and that our credit card purchases are recorded. With GPS-equipped mobile phones and automobiles, we may have our travels in real life tracked. In short, we’re already generating useful data by participating in modern society. Justin aims to leverage that data for entertainment value, and perhaps to augment social networking.

Justin’s idea involves aggregating and classifying the data into activities which can be scored much like a video game where repeated skill is rewarded with “skill points” which reflect proficiency and confer some special privilege. This data would be public, allowing the participant to leverage his everyday achievements in bragging rights, or perhaps to act in some capacity as a rite of passage into an exclusive group. Mechanisms like this exist today in the form of the myriad credentials one can aspire to for work or participation in sports leagues. A PMOG would give everyday life the flavor of achievement that one feels when they reach a milestone in a video game. Today Justin’s work exists largely as a vision and some loose applications, but it is not difficult to see his idea materialize in the near future. The technology is ready.

Mark Barrett’s approach today involves a similar use of existing trace data generated as a byproduct of Second Life residents. Residents choose to wear a wristwatch in-world which is programmed to record to Mark’s website slstats.com where that resident has been, for how long and who they saw along the way. The output on the website can be used as a sort of MySpace analog, where friend lists become statistics and the amount of time spent in world is a score. Mark’s approach is more immediate and is largely complete.

Both gentlemen have pushed hard against the notion that our online lives will be as anonymous as our public physical lives. In the physical world, people in modern countries are subject to near-continuous video and financial surveillance. In workplaces, we are often carded on our way into the building. Automobile toll booths and mass transit trains may record tickets or transponder passes. But we also know that due to a number of limits, such as a lack of connection between all these sentinels, we generally live our lives without invasive monitoring. Our cell phones may track us to an extent, but they don’t usually know who we’re speaking with unless we use the phone to call. Video cameras aren’t as numerous at home, if at all. And none of these sensing systems is absolute or complete. They are a far cry from being intrinsically connected to you.

In a virtual world, every single change invoked by a participant, from movement to chat to their interacton with others is capable of direct measurement. There is no ambiguity in the position that a character occupies or the words being typed in a chat window. Tracking in-world is intimate and very invasive. As ominous as this tracking sounds, virtual world residents are generally aware that it is possible even if they are not sure who is watching. While an expectation of privacy exists in the physical world where a tradition of privacy (either legally or practically enforced,) the virtual realm implies that a computer is involved in every aspect of the experience and can record any or all of that experience.

Mark and Justin both rightly challenge the notion that transparency is evil. One of the marks of a visionary is questioning established or accepted beliefs in the presence of alternatives. Justin’s line of thinking involves what I believe is a utopian view that all of our actions and traits should be considered accomplishments in one form or another. I can see the attractiveness of this thinking as he and I come from a similar geek background, one which holds strongly to the idea of meritocracy over competition. Mark may be operating less overtly in his thoughts, simply establishing what appears to be a cool idea with some social network value yet is clearly challenging convention and social acceptance.

Unfortunately, I heard nothing about how they accommodate the danger of majority rule and the need for dissent in such a transparent world. Society lacks the capacity to accommodate dissent and individuality whenever they overtly conflict with convention. One runs the risk of making groupthink a much larger and more pervasive problem than it is today when one shines such a harsh light onto thoughts of dissent. Today, a dissenter may selectively reveal their misgivings. But in a transparent world of exposed thoughts and actions one may have no choice but to suffer the consequences of disapproval from all quarters, rather than keeping personal views to themselves when the forum is too hostile or the risks too great.

Web logs are the first real test of society’s response to the sort of transparency introduced by the open models that Mark and Justin are exploring. Corporations fearing for their public image have terminated employees. Schools suspend students and in some cases college professors are all but burned alive. Personal disclosure on a web log is voluntary. It is not likely that the persons mentioned incidentally on weblogs will be correlated by any authority and used for data mining, as they could if a uniform relationship list existed (although MySpace and its peers provide this sort of relationship data.) But in a “transparent” world, there are few shadows where an individual may keep unpopular thoughts without unwanted disclosure. Simply knowing one’s reading material provides an outsider with substantial material by which to judge the subject.

But it has been said many times, and rightly so, that technology can always be used for good and evil purposes. It is not just to reject a technology out of hand for fear that it may corrupt or destroy society. Rather, one must examine it’s benefits and formulate ways to protect against its abuse. Or perhaps to create countermeasures to that abuse. Because privacy will continue to diminish and change, I am interested in how Mark and Justin believe we’ll adapt to these systems. It is not enough to say that what they believe is wrong, because we accept similar encroachments from the government and corporations. The issue, rather, is how we will embrace and use these technologies and perhaps how we can cope with them to retain the privacy we value most.

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