Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is Virtual World The Latest Crime Centre?

This month there was a magnificent article in the Guardian by Josh Klein entitled ‘Coins of the online realm’ it was particularly interesting to me because it raised two important issues,

  • The virtual economy (for swords, laser guns, and even virtual flowers)
  • Identity, Authentication and Reputation in the virtual world

I have long puzzled over internet games and their virtual armaments and even more at the thoughts of buying virtual guns with real money but this is a serious economy worth some $5bn today (this is just an estimate because nobody really knows the exact size but what everybody does agree is that it is already billions, $1bn in South Korea alone) and still accelerating.

Now I’m not going to get hung up on the exact size of this virtual economy but if we accept it’s in the $billions what does that suggest to you? Yes, it’s crime, where there is money the criminal will not be far away. What’s the old saying, if you’re looking for the crooks then follow the money.

Now I’ve always been bemused by how many €500 euro notes you can stuff into a cornflakes packet, apparently some €300,000 or at least that was what they found when they captured Eftychia Symeonidoy who stood outside a London apartment, casually holding the box under her arm. Part of a 13 strong money laundering gang offering a service to the UK criminal underworld they were caught by the HMRC and were duly prosecuted and jailed. The article goes on to describe the problems of moving money when in its £20 note form compared with the €500 note form. Just for those that can’t wait, £1million in 20 pound notes would weigh some 50 Kg while the same amount in €500 notes would only weigh about 2Kg. Apparently these guys were handling between £1million and £4 million per month.

But now the world has changed, who needs to stuff cornflake boxes when you have got virtual cash? Why not move money around in the form of Linden dollars (from ‘Second Life’) or perhaps in the form of virtual spaceships, there can be no bounds to the imagination. I would just offer a little note of caution to those thinking about a career change, don’t forget you have to get the money in and out of the virtual system which in general is regulated (read monitored). Of course you could continue your life totally within the virtual world of ‘Second Life’ or similar, perhaps the crims will no longer feel the need to move to the South of Spain, they could set it all up in their back bedroom with sun lamps.

Anyway on to the other issue of who you are in this virtual world, what is your persona? Now the interesting thing here is that on the internet in general people like to be anonymous. Visit the crime centre of the virtual world (its called eBay) and you will struggle to identify any of the players, sellers and bidders alike. The way that all these virtual environments work is on authenticated pseudonyms, you are dealing with some constructed user name or email address. When you trade you do so based on the reputation of the handle being used by the participants. Does this matter, well yes it does because your legal redress is more difficult and in the case of eBay we know that PayPal (now owned by eBay) spends most of its time (I’ve heard as much as 80%) resolving disputes. I can’t see that people are going to start using identities on the internet so what is currently missing is an accepted way of handling reputations that can be locked to an internet persona. We have so far to go, did you know you can’t leave negative feedback on eBay and of course the practiced fraudsters artificially set up a reputation before they have their fleecing spree.

I must admit I do shop on ebay but nervously and never for high value goods.


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