[As usual, you can read this on the BBC News website]
The computers know everything. They know what you look like, where you go and who you meet. They know everything you say, can read every message you send and even know what you are looking at at any particular moment. If you raise your left hand, the computers know – and they know whether you’re holding a sword or a pen.
So far this is not true in the real world, but it is certainly the case if you’re playing any of the increasingly popular massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs.
Because the computers in question are not run by the National Security Agency or our own MI5; they are the servers that create Second Life, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, Xbox Live and thousands of other virtual worlds, online environments, multi-user games and other spaces for online interaction.
When Jeremy Bentham described the panopticon in 1787 he imagined a prison in which every movement of the prisoner could be observed by guards who were themselves not visible to those being observed.
His dream has been realised in the virtual realm, because in order for these worlds to exist at all they must be completely described in computer software, and those descriptions have to include every detail of every character and every interaction. It isn’t unwarranted surveillance, it is a necessary part of the implementation.
The SF writer William Gibson, who created the idea of ‘cyberspace’ as an environment which we could occupy rather than merely observe on a screen, put it well in his 1984 novel “Neuromancer’. In the book Case has encountered the artificial intelligence, Neuromancer, and has become part of the system, his consciousness merged with the computer.
Gibson writes: ‘here things could be counted, each one. He knew the number of grains of sand in the construct of the beach (a number coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind that was Neuromancer). He knew the number of yellow food packets in the canisters in the bunker (four hundred and seven). He knew the number of brass teeth in the left half of the open zipper of the salt-crusted leather jacket that Linda Lee wore as she trudged along the sunset beach.’
The flowery writing reveals a truth that all players of online games or users of virtual environments, whether hosted by a multinational corporation or sitting on a friends’ server, need to realise. Every interaction is loggable, every transaction must of necessity be noted in the database that underpins the world. Every breath you take, every step you make, is being watched.
However while the data is clearly there, and the system has to record what is happening, the ways that it is used by administrators, other players and the company running the service are legitimate areas of concern. If I play on Xbox Live, how reasonable is it for Microsoft to observe my gameplay? Is it ok if they are researching how to write better games? Is it reasonable to look for breaches of the membership rules? What about looking for information on my favourite foods and using it in marketing?
People are starting to wonder what this means for their avatars, the characters that represent them in the virtual worlds. One is Christopher Dodds from Australian online marketing and design firm Icon.inc. He has been asking people what they think about in-game surveillance in a survey posted to the art-game portal Selectparks.
The research is part of a masters thesis at RMIT University, looking at our feelings about the ‘invisible omniscience’ of the administrators of our virtual worlds.
Dodds is looking at the ways that system administrators or guides interact with players, and also at ways that players can illicitly observe other players. He is also interested in the complex issue of parental control in the game world, where children who play in online environments may be exposed to unsuitable material or encounter people without their parents’ knowledge.
His research is only just beginning, but I suspect he will find that, as with civil liberties in the real world, a few people care deeply about being observed and most either accept it as the price of participation or simply choose to trust the administrators.
Yet as we see time and time again in cases of the abuse of information, it is not enough to leave things to trust. Back in October 2005 Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, was criticised because a program it uses to check whether players are cheating by installing automatic game-playing software, was also recording information on users’ web surfing.
The simplest thing in a European context would be for information commissioners or the parliament itself to declare that data on the activities of our avatars is personal data and covered by data protection law.
This would oblige administrators to take proper care of it, to disclose how and when they were collecting and using it, and to put steps in place to control other people’s access to it.
It would not stop the security agencies from poking around, because as we have seen so many times in the past they have ways of asking for supposedly confidential data that gets round most legal restrictions. But it would at least help, and it might make people using virtual words more aware of what’s going on.
If we’re ever going to have informed avatars campaigning for their civil liberties then local organising inside the games worlds is the obvious place to start. Perhaps it’s time for Liberty and the American Civil Liberties Union to join forces and launch an online membership drive.
After all, as the BBC itself has found with its forays into Second Life for BBC Radio One events, the best way to understand what’s happening online is to engage and be part of the community.