“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Forgive me for borrowing my introduction from the late great Mr. Dickens, but his introduction fits so aptly to the subject I wish to explore. Cast your mind back, dear reader, to the autumn of 2011 when our favorite virtual world was all ablaze with RedZone and other forms of alt detectors. For some of us this was a great breakthrough. Finally, we could find out if our partner had a secret life or if our best friend enjoyed parading around the grid dressed as a giant baby. For some of us these were perilous times. Privacy was gone. Our secret life on the grid was exposed. Our favorite virtual world could have been likened to something ripped from the pages of a George Orwell novel.
Mona Ferguso, whose name I changed deliberately, is a well-known fashion designer within Second Life, and she described her thoughts on those troubled times:
“Those times were awful, privacy had gone. Surely I have the right to express myself on the grid the way I wished without the whole of SL knowing how I did so. I used my main account for my Second Life work interests. I have an alt who I use to explore various Sims, and I guess, explore my inner self. If I wanted to go to a BDSM club wearing all leathers that was up to me. I had the right to a private life. RedZone tried to take that from me.”
However, not all of us were anti RedZone. Some of us considered this to be the security breakthrough we had all been waiting for. Chris Smithson, the leader of an in world security provider made the following comments:
“Alt accounts have been the cause of many security issues in world for a long time. It’s about time that some form of accountability existed in world. After all, if you aren’t doing anything wrong what have you got to hide?”
In general many felt intimidated, perhaps even vulnerable, by this privacy invading technology. Residents felt as though freedom had evaporated and a virtual purgatory was about to begin. Seasoned virtual entrepreneurs closed their businesses and left the grid. The virtual private life was now gone. During this time, the number of active users dropped. I can’t verify this to have anything to do with RedZone -but one could say that it was a tremendous coincidence?
How did RedZone work?
Basically, RedZone functioned by collecting your IP address from within your viewer. The tool exploited the relationship between your viewer and external web browsers. Basically anything that wasn’t insular to your viewer would provide the tool with a means to scan for your IP address. For example, Search functions, Voice, even having Java setting enabled. Basically, a land owner would purchase a detector/ orb and place it on land which they had admin rights too. Any avatars which then landed on that land would be scanned and entered into a giant online database of residents. What most purchasers of RedZone weren’t aware of was that even just purchasing the system and setting it up automatically entered them into the giant online database. The worrying thing was, the database also contained real world location information. Although it didn’t provide an exact address, the information it did provide was still dangerous in the wrong hands.
In short, the online database was a hotbed of private data that had been collected unlawfully and without appropriate consent. This database even breached European data privacy laws.
How accurate was RedZone?
The easy answer to that is, not very. Anyone with a Dynamic IP wouldn’t be concerned about the system at all. Dynamic IP addresses change every time they connect to the Internet. However, residents using Static addresses were the people most vulnerable to the system. Again, the scanner wasn’t able to discriminate between internet cafes and large residential places either. So several different individuals could have been incorrectly flagged up as alts to one account. This was a big flaw in the system.
The Death of RedZone.
Many residents had been abuse reporting this technology to Linden Labs. After sometime the Lab eventually acted and prohibited its use. However, the creator of RedZone spotted a loop hole in the amended terms of service and was quick to exploit it. Instead of automatically scanning any resident in the vicinity, a blue pop up box appeared and asked for prior consent. zFire Xue, the RedZone creator, thought he had steadied his sinking ship and he could still sit back and watch the lindens roll in. His ship was still yet to founder. Meanwhile, an anti RedZone group named GreenZone had formed and was fiercely the enemy with the support of many angry Second Life Residents. They recognized that illegally harvesting resident information was ethically and morally wrong. Not to mention a criminal action. Finally, Linden Lab bit the bullet and banned RedZone and all other alt scanners on the Market. Oh yes, RedZone wasn’t the only alt scanner on the market. Many were springing up wanting to get in on the cash cow.
Not long after this, zFire Xue was banned from the Grid. Even right up until the end, he had his supporters. There were troops of avatars at his in world store demonstrating with Boards that read, ‘Bring back RedZone! These protests fell on deaf ears. There was no way the Lab could afford to have this kind of PR damage again. Not long after, it was reported that zFire Xue had been arrested and remanded to custody by US Marshals for contravening his probation terms. He had been previously convicted for a cyber-fraud felony. It was reported that he served four months in prison.
For two years after his release, Xue is prohibited to work in computer programming. He’s banned from using any online auction sites, or be a resident of any virtual networking environment (i.e., Second Life. World of Warcraft, etc.).
And so concludes a dark chapter in the History of Second Life.