Recently virtual world Second Life suffered various attacks on it’s server grid by self-replicating objects resulting in various outages during the last week until this monday.
Linden Lab reacted in the usual way of restricting logins, cleaning up the attack and re-enabling logins. Additionally they deployed some fixes in order to address the problems
(although in the process of this a bug in the fix was discovered leading to permission problems with object and thus resulting in a closed grid until it was repaired). You can read about
all these on their blog (a results of these outages might be a lot of traffic on their blog resulting in being the number one blog on wordpress).
Opinions in some parts of the Second Life resident base suggests that only the opening-up of the registration process earlier this year when the requirement of a credit card was dropped led to this proliferation of attacks. Other rumors say that the banning of the 60 residents in mid september led to the issue as it was seen as affront against that group resulting in stronger trials of attacks.
It is hard to say what is true and who is behind it without further evidence shown to us. And of course the latter fact is no excuse for such attacks. But they are happening and Linden Lab (and the Second Life residents in the end) have to deal with them. It should be clear though that the growing popularity (895,223 residents registered at the time of this writing) will also attract more potential attackers and griefers.
The latest news on the issue is by Robin Harper, vice president of Linden Lab, creators of Second Life, where she explains their measures to be taken against further attacks. The first one is to meet up with Federal authorities in order to hand over evidence on the attackers and discuss the further process. Another mechanism according to her is the installment of a trust system in which only trusted users are allowed to fully utilize the Second Life scripting language LSL. No further information is yet given on how this trust system might work (except that it will not adding credit cards back to registration but instead it is based on credit card verification but not only) and also no info on how the scripting language will be restricted.
Additionally the upcoming release of Second Life which is going to be deployed today is said to also address grid attack issues in respect to more easily identifying and stopping them.
My thoughts on it
Attacks in either the real or the virtual world seem always to yield the same result: A limitation of freedom. Although no details are known yet about the upcoming trust system I guess it will impose some limitation especially as it is said to go beyond credit card registration. It might also introduce some issues like passing scripted objects from one avatar to another (one trusted, the other not). And also clear is that attackers will also find ways around this.
I personally do not really care that much about grid attacks if they are cleaned up quickly. It’s just an annoyance but has no real impact on my Second Life so far. And to people doing business in Second Life it should also be clear that such things (and normal bugs) are a common thing in such very new environments. So make sure you have that included in your risk management. I’d rather keep freedom instead of loosing more and more of it for the sake of having a completely attack-free grid (most likely it would also be a resident-free grid).
Regarding open registration my opinion is clear in that it must stay open. It was always hard to me to convince people to join Second Life as they were quite reluctant to give out their credit card although it’s saying that it’s a free account. Open registration should make it for any party easier to get in. Included here are of course griefers but we also had attacks with verification and this is nothing which can stop any attacker. Freedom again is good and the freedom to sign up should be included in it.
Another point about the new trust system is the question of how the procedure is to get trusted. If it contains more than the credit card verification which can be automated and it might consist of human interaction then it might eventually introduce a huge back queue of applications. But maybe it’s to early anyway to discuss this as long as no information is available.
Then there’s the architecture of Second Life. It’s not easy to understand why the whole grid needs to go down or is at least slowed down when an object replication attack is happening. When digging a bit deeper though it’s obvious. It is the non-distributed nature of the asset server and probably some other central services. So if an object replication attack is going on then the amount of objects created is exponential and as the asset manager as the central repository of objects needs to handle these it is likely to slow down. Moreover it might also be a network bandwidth issue in the backplane of their services. Now changing this to a distributed system which is eventually distributed among sims (and thus unaffected sims could stay stable) is of course not easy and might as well never happen (although also the growing number of residents and thus objects might lead to performance issue in normal operation at some point). So it’s of course easy to point now to some basic design decisions in the past but it’s not going to help us unfortunately 😉
Moreover as Mark Wallace explains in this post on 3pointd.com there might be issues with having two classes of users then. This is contrary to what Philip Linden’s (CEO of Linden Lab) idea of this metaverse is (at least as I understand it).
The overall bad thing though is that such attacks always lead from trusting residents to generally mistrusting them. So in fact instead of assuming that you are nice you now have to sort of prove it (add to this the already existing practice of Linden Lab to store all chat and IM logs for an unnamed amount of time). So this is not necessarily my dream of an open system and it’s sad that attackers have such a bigger impact on policies than just the annoyance of an attack here and then. And again the same goes for Real Life here, of course.
But anyway, I will report more on this when more details on the changes become available. For now let’s hope for a good deployment today in Linden Lab’s and our interest 🙂