The new search in town and the big privacy issues it implies

There is a new search tool available as beta for Second Life, being developed of the Electric Sheep Company at the moment and open for public now since a few days ago.

What’s this thing and how does it work? Well, the searching part of it is a bot named Grid Sheperd, that runs from sim to sim, scans the objects of a sim and connects them with avatar names. The part available on the world wide web at the moment is a search interface, that enables everybody to lookup the items owned by the avatar. It is only showing the items of the avatar though that are tagged as "for sale". So the Sheeps are telling us: it’s adding value to all of use, since it’s automated and it’s opt-out, if you don’t want those infos available at all. They’re very excited, announced the availability of this service here, described the options and doings of this search bot in this FAQ and an progress update in this blog entry. Important: opt-outs are now taking effect immideately!

Heck, I don’t care about that! This thing is invading my privacy, plain and simple. I am going to ban the bot on every parcel I can and I am going to spread the word around and this bot makes me really, really angry, and I mean it!

So, what’s wrong with this toy? Many things.

My few main reasons why I took an instant hate about it are:

  • Not everybody is going to know it is existant or how to ban it or can ban it.
  • On big flaw in the approach: it is opt-out! Sheesh! This thing should be opt-in only! I want to be asked before, not afterwards, it’s that simple.
  • The technology used for this machine works and generates a big database. While per default only items tagged for sale are going to show up, I can visit the Sheep Island and make all of my items public available, if I wish. This means: it can be used to generate a big database with nearly all the objects I’ve placed in world somewhere. Bummer. Even if they don’t use it to leave those items in the database, the technology is ready. Ready for what? Well, who guarantees me that not another person or company is going to use this to really scrape all data available on the main grid about me, generates files about me and is going to sell them to companies interested in my data for whatever reasons? This is a really, really big, bad breach of privacy! And this is also in my opinion a flaw in the architecture of SL and/or the handling of bots by Lindenlabs. This incident just pointed to a whole can of worms unsolved, we should be therefore thankful for it. Not everybody would announce such a thing in public, and that with good reason.
  • They’re claiming it’s adding value to the community. Well… perhaps to a small part of the community, but in whole this approach is very arguable. It would have been better if this bot was opt-in only from the start, but even then it’s troublesome.
  • If I publish a website, I expect it to be indexed by a search engine. I can adjust the behaviour with a file named robots.txt, I can restrict access on my own and so on. When I open a store or build my house in SL, I don’t expect such a thing happening at all. And if I don’t read about it, I might never know it’s there.

So, what’s the conclusion of it? SL has lost some more of its innocence, if you want to protect your data, you must get your ass off and do it yourself. Since this bot is still in the beta, the default policy could change – perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. But if someone really wants to scrape the data of the grid about you, well, the technology is ready, and he’s going to do it silently. You’re never going to know what hit you until it is to late, then. And, believe me, there are many compromising objects around an avatar could place in his home which can backfire on your real life – badly. Very, very bad.

It would be even more easier for Lindenlabs, to do this on their own, since they’re sitting on the whole database and just need to run some queries. Easy. But this would ruin their reputation at all, many people would perhaps threatening them with law suits, so this is not going to happen and we should trust them on that matter. Besides, you’ve got a contract with them.

And how is this new feature being reviewed by the community? That’s really even more surprising: most are happy with it and welcome this! This seems for me that many really don’t have a clue about what this actually could mean for them.

Some examples are:

Of course, such a tool has never only people supporting it; someone who got the whole shebang right and has the right views about it in my opionion is Prokofy Neva. He wrote actually a whole bunch of articles about it on his own blog and on the Second Life Herald and I must say, I share his views, that’s very rare. Find his article about the search engine itself on his blog here, about the need to regulate the usage of bots (I wonder if it is possible) here and his article about it at the Second Life Herald here. He also wrote an open letter to the CEO of Lindenlabs, Philip Rosedale, in which he raises many valid points.

By the way, not only I’ve got a problem with this approach, according to another article of Prokofy Neva at the Second Life Herald Anshe Chung thinks this is a violation of her covenants and has banned the bot on her whole continent Dreamland. I can understand that move.

Well, what’s left to say is: I don’t think that ECS is evil. In my eyes they took the wrong approach to this delicate kind of matter, which is now backfiring great lengths on them. Backfiring how? Well, I know many potential investors, who are angry about it and for sure are now not going to give them orders for in world buildings and such, in contrary, even try to convince other people not to give ECS orders at all.

Another important thing is that this would have happened sooner or later, because Second Life allows this data to be scraped without much efforts at all, perhaps it already has happened many times and is still happening, done by others, and we just don’t know it. Such things also have happened with different social network on the web many times, so better watch your steps. SL is like the wild west there, it seems – if you want security, your on your own – mostly. Better get used to it that an avatar is something in a database.

If you want to read more about that privacy in general, I suggest you visiting the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).