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"Real" and "virtual"

By Dave Birch posted Jun 13 2008 at 4:57 PM
[Dave Birch] At the 21st European e-Identity Conference, there was a presentation on the regulation of virtual worlds by Bart Schermer from the University of Leiden. I know we've discussed it here many times before, but I mention the presentation here because In the Netherlands (where the conference was taking place), the first virtual theft case is now being prosecuted. The case concerns the theft of €4,000 worth of Habbo Hotel furniture stolen by a "phisher" who obtained account passwords. Not only does this confirm that phishing in virtual worlds is going to be just as much of a problem as phishing in the sort-of-real world, it confirms that the virtual world might be a good customer for bank authentication systems. Of course, as a consumer I don't care if phishers get in to my bank account, because my bank will give me the money back. But I do care if they take over my virtual world avatar: Will I get my magic sword back?

The fuzzy boundary between real and virtual (not so much "fuzzy" in the case of identity, more "invisible") continues to fascinate because it informs the evolution of digital identity concepts but it's still not clear what it all means. It's certainly the case that people feel a connection between real and virtual identities, whatever the technological connection. We are entering some strange psychological territory here:

For example, people who watched their avatars - digitized characters based on a person or thing - overeat and then gain weight are more likely to adopt a weight-loss plan in real life.

[From Virtual avatars may affect real life decisions - News]

There are far more serious issues to deal with here, way beyond the remit of this blog, but their impact on the world of digitial identity is strongly connected to the issue of anonymity. Which suggests to me that delivering some genuinely radical privacy-enhancing technology (PET) into the mass consumer market might be more easily achieved by targeting virtual worlds rather than, say, banks or governments.

Just as our courts on continually pointing out that anonymity is protected free speech, it appears that the federal government is trying to do away with anonymity entirely. We've already pointed out that National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has been saying that the government should be able to monitor all internet communications. Now, the government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has come out with a fear mongering report trying to suggest that online anonymity in 3D worlds leads to terrorism. It highlights things like Second Life as a breeding ground for terrorism. It's all quite scary if it weren't for the fact that it's totally baseless.

[From Techdirt: Gov't Says Second Life + Online Anonymity = Terrorism]

Anyway, Bart made the point in his presentation that the anonymity of the inhabitants of virtual worlds is a real problem for business and government. He's right, but the solution is not unconditional "nymity", following the Chinese and Korean ideas of requiring some form of national identity number from people who want to go online. The solution is to make pseudonymity the norm in mass markets so that people are comfortable with giving their "bank name" or " game name" or "friends name" but are immediately suspicious when asked for their "real name".

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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Comments

There's a mismatch here, isn't there!? Banks might be the ones to pay for the system, but they don't want it. The virtual worlds want it, but likely won't pay for it. Maybe innovation is limited to the speed with which virtual worlds and other experimenters can spend their small budget on minimal systems.

Maybe banks should take on sponsorships with virtual worlds instead of art galleries?

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