Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is Avatar = Real Person Privacy at Death's Door?

There was an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday initiated by Bettina Tizzy. She wrote:
Are SLers in denial? I think avatar=real person privacy is at death's door.
Although my knee-jerk reaction was to defend the idea that pseudonymity is here to stay, I decided that the topic deserved more consideration. My question today is not whether avatar privacy should go away, but whether forces such as these are making it less tenable;

Continued influx of people using VWs as an extension of their RL jobs, education, etc:
  • At the moment, there's no easy way for teachers and students to be fully pseudonymous (little alone anonymous) and receive academic credit. At the very least, each institution would need to have some list linking avatar and human identity. 
  • Corporate employees and people with virtual world businesses who wish to work with mainstream companies will continue to find it necessary or at least beneficial to disclose RL information. Although there are exceptions to the rule, if you want to get paid you're probably going to need to get made.
  • The new Second Life display name capability makes it easier than ever to conflate RL and SL identities. I don't know how high the percentage will get, but there's nowhere to go but up.
  • It's likely that educational and corporate use of virtual worlds will continue to increase and perhaps even become commonplace. 
  • It's likely that Second Life and other virtual worlds will eventually allow Facebook authentication. When that happens, there will be an added incentive for more people to extend RL identities, at least with one primary avatar.
  • There's a certain chicken and the egg factor at play in the maintenance of Second Life's pseudonymity-accepting culture. If at some time the balance between human-connected identity communities and pseudonymous identity communities shift, it's possible that overall cultural acceptance could swing the other way.
Continued growth of transworld virtual identity: 
Take it from me, maintaining pseudonymity in an actively transworld virtual life demands great attention to detail. I have separate accounts for Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, Animoto, Gmail, etc.. Even though I put together a system that keeps identities separate by using different browsers, I came close to posting something identifiable to the wrong account countless times. As our avatar identities spread across multiple platforms, it will become increasingly difficult to juggle it all and keep everything separate. It only takes one slip to blow your cover. Some of us also find that our virtual "careers" become significant enough that we want to carry them over to human identity so that we can fully benefit from them.

Continued introduction of new hacking and security technology:
The recent RedZone controversy reminds us that we leave breadcrumbs all over the place as we surf. For instance, if I had wanted to, I could have easily connected quite of few of the visitors here over the years to their cities and places of employment. I personally chose not to. But others likely make a different choice. Although it is possible to take measures such as shielding our IP addresses through software like the TOR Project and turning off cookies in our browser settings, no strategy is absolutely fool-proof. Another looming technology involves artificial intelligence that crawls the web and makes correlations between what would otherwise be disconnected chunks of data.

Various Human factors:
If even a single person knows the connection between your virtual and human identity, it is quite possible that they will eventually intentionally or inadvertently share that information with someone else. Every additional person who knows the connection increases the chances that the cat will get totally out of the bag. Of course, you can make the decision to tell no one and control the secret yourself. The problem is that you are likely to meet people who you want to share details about your human life, up to and including your full identity. So you either back off from moving forward in those relationships or give up some control over your pseudonymous destiny.

I'll leave it for another day to reconsider the personal benefits and costs of pseudonymity. I'm happy at the moment with my own middle ground, although it's fun to kick the fourth wall once in a while like I'm doing with the appearance by my human counterpart on the Metanomics Community Forum tomorrow.


Mera Kranfel said...

I perfectly understand you cant be anonymous if you are a student in a virtual world. But still i dont think you should share that with the whole world. Ill just say one word; STALKERS!

Would you walk down one of the main streets in New York city irl with your name and adress over your head? And handing out your keys to your apartment to everyone interested? No that wouldnt be a wise move.

And the internet is far worse. I believe in pseudonyms on the internet, full stop. Share with friends yes, but not the whole world. There are maniacs out there and I dont want them in my house, cooking the kids rabbit for dinner....

Dale Innis said...

I don't think it's any more dead or ailing than it ever was. Some people have always used pseudonyms on the Net, some of them have always been discovered, some not. There are certainly more places to accidentally give yourself away than there used to be (MyTwitFace :) ). But I don't think it's fundamentally any harder (or any easier) to remain pseudonymous; or at any rate the difference is just one of degree, not of kind...

Scarp Godenot said...

"...t's likely that Second Life and other virtual worlds will eventually allow Facebook authentication..."

I don't think this statement is correct. Simply because Facebook's entire model is BASED on RL identity. AND a lot of SL identity is based on roleplay.

I give as evidence the amazingly huge nuclear level reaction to the idea that RedZone was hacking avatar alt identities.

This is a lesson in what NOT to do for Second Life. Many, many, many paying customers will just go to another virtual world if this were to happen, and Linden Lab knows this.

The whole RL/VR world identity thing will not be an either/or in the future. There will be many choices out there and many ways to do it.

I think Linden Lab has made the right choice by making your RL identity available to show as a personal choice. I think it will stay that way for monetary reasons.....

Skylar Smythe said...

I support the Lab's move to making a verified avatar account available as an option.

For those that have no business purpose or need for a verfied identity there is no impetus for change. For those that require it, it opens doors of business opportunities.

The conversation quickly went to a fear of "outting" people and the security risks involved. By offering the choice there is no stripping the safety of masking identity for people who sincerely need and want it, for whatever reason.

Freedom of choice FTW!

Excellent post.


Dale Innis said...

I dunno. Being able to freely opt in or out is great to first order, but I do worry about emergent effects. For instance if there was a huge influx of RL-verified people, and the perception became that non-verified people were probably griefers or scammers or whatever, and venues started blocking the non-verified, and so on, I think that would change the nature of SL for the worse.

Just offering RL-verification as an option won't itself cause that to happen, of course. But it might be a first step on a bad road...

Just fretting. :)

Raven Haalan said...

Without discussing the pros and cons of psuedoanon identity, I'll point out that anyone with sufficient skill can pull it off, regardless - and those without sufficient skill can't, regardless.

There are just entirely too many breadcrumbs that can be followed to find someone on the net, unless you are exceptionally rigorous in covering your tracks...

... and similarly, the determined and skilled can cover their tracks very well indeed. Attempts to enforce ubiquitous RL visiblity will have the effect of giving folks a false confidence.

I'd note that what the metaverse does offer is "popular and easy access to psuedo anon identities" - and this has created a culture that (largely) accepts interaction with these identities at face value. I rather like how avatars express an aspect of folks - it takes people watching to a whole new level.

The norms on this are forming up still, I think, but the culture has had a years to become entrenched - it won't die.

On the other hand, some business and emotional investments could sure benefit from a verified identity linkage. I'd definitely verify an account, for what it would be worth.

iliveisl said...

i am so sorry that i missed this post! this is a great topic and i would say that pseudonyms will always exist and that an "Ener Hax" is very much like a Nike

Nike is no single person but has tremendous accountability

some brands, like Apple, are heavily identified by one person. but many brands, actors, singers, etc, use pseudonyms and it is no big deal

does it matter who Ener Hax is? not at all, it is best to judge Ener by what Ener does

i respect Botgirl and really have no interest in knowing who the "real" person is because i have gained so much insight from the writings of Botgirl

it does not matter to me if Botgirl is tall, short, Jewish, Muslim, white, black, or likes anchovies - what does any of that have to do with what i have learned from Botgirl?