“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Wired Magazine, “Sun on Privacy: ‘Get Over It’” — January 26, 1999.
Privacy On the Web
One of the most hotly debated subjects among the public and governments is the invasion of privacy that all technology companies have on our lives. From the giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, the list goes on and on, to the small companies who pick up your email address for an innocuous email newsletter, individual privacy has proven to be a myth.
It is not only technology. Journalists in the United States will hide behind the first amendment, and in other countries, they will claim “Freedom of the Press” to reveal the private lives of any individual they feel warranted. Though in Journalism, one can argue the right of the public to know is greater than the individual privacy rights of a person.
Tracking your every move, both online and where you travel, is straightforward with all the electronic wizardry we wear or carry in our pockets. Technology has taken this a step further into the abyss. Online it is used to target you with specific advertisements geared to your interests. The search terms you use, the sites you visit, and the time you spend on each page are all recorded. Even the length of time you spend watching a video on YouTube, Vimeo, or TikTok is tracked. Your spending habits are tracked, your expenses are tracked, and your credit rating is constantly reassessed.
We revolt, rant, and author article after article about how awful this loss of privacy is. Yet we still scroll through Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and all the rest with obsession. Let us not forget email as well. Sure, no one reads your email. But don’t for a moment think that AI systems are not looking at that text and categorizing it for AI analysis.
Privacy is truly a misnomer. Paradoxically, we can find privacy in our daily lives as we interact with others. We choose what, when, how, why, and to whom we wish to reveal something. But that phone in our back pocket and that smartwatch on our hand know precisely where we are, and our heart rate, and they can intelligently guess the activity we are engaged in when we forget to tell it what we are doing.
Of course, we think there are ways around this invasion of privacy. Many people will use pseudonyms online. A fake name will at least protect them from revealing their real identity. Correct? Not exactly. The moment the pseudonym purchases anything online, an actual credit card is used. The moment that happens, you are linked. Hooked up. Discovered! Combined.
Email? How many email accounts can you keep up to hide behind a pseudonym? It is exhausting, time-consuming, and in the end, pointless.
The question is no longer about privacy. It is about the level of privacy you can legally maintain and personally expect to protect your identity.
Companies like Taboola make hundreds of millions of dollars by tracking your movements online and hitting you with advertisements. Yet, the online pieces of your identity, those little electronic 1’s and 0’s, are there for the offing if you have not dropped off the grid.
And if you are one of those individuals, who goes through every single permission and every single Cookie tracking question, then all I can say is more power to you. If you have that kind of time on your hands, I am jealous. And to a large part, it still will not help you completely protect your privacy.
No matter how much the companies guarantee your information will be controlled and never revealed — it is an impossible goal for them to achieve and remain profitable. Even if it is legislated into law, there is always another method to continue gathering all of your data.
So, what is privacy in our era of AI? I have expectations of privacy, as long as I do not go against the legal system where I live. I have an average expectation of privacy that when I give my email out to Nike, Adidas, or Amazon for their email list, they will not sell it to another company. I assume that my name, age, place of residence, and all the rest will never be shared by a payment system.
Remember that dating app where you hid behind a fake name and a profile that does not accurately define you? You may have even used photoshopped pictures from twenty years ago or did not upload an image? Do you remember the part where you paid to use their services? And if you used an app like Tinder and did not pay, do you remember the photos you put up and the area where you said you reside? And let us not forget about that nasty little IP address if you are not savvy enough to use a VPN all the time or play hoops over the world with your IP. Do you still think you can hide?
Yes, you can use all the tricks in the book. VPNs, pseudonyms, fake identities, fake addresses, fake emails — all done to hide who and where of the actual individual behind the computer screen. That is one way around it. However, unless you are a criminal, terrorist, or master hacker, sooner or later, you will make that one purchase with your actual credit card backed by your real bank account. Poof! There goes all that work to hide.
We live in an age of “expected privacy,” knowing full well this is a minimal definition of privacy that one would expect in their own homes. On the Web, though, even that minimal privacy is no longer possible.
Anonymity — Where Is It Possible?
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891)
Now, let us look at anonymity and borrow from dictionary.com the definition:
without any name acknowledged, as that of author, contributor, or the like: an anonymous letter to the editor; an anonymous donation. of unknown name; whose name is withheld: an anonymous author. lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction:
According to the above definitions, is it possible to maintain anonymity on the web? To a certain extent, it is within a specific boundary of systems — Virtual Worlds.
The Cardinal Rule of Virtual Worlds: Your Real Identity Is Absolutely Secret
The cardinal rule of participating in a Virtual World (VW) is that your real identity is never divulged to anyone within that system. Every aspect of your virtual existence flows from that rule. Funds are the Achilles heel in this structure, as they must come from real currencies (or now Cryptocurrencies, which makes the process easier and harder), and those real currencies have a real identity attached to them. Therefore, virtual worlds, including the Metaverse, have adopted many methods of handling such a structure, especially when dealing with transferring funds in and out of the system.
Please remember that we are not discussing only privacy. When one argues that the tech giants have invaded our privacy by recording every move we make, it is not the same argument as saying we want to remain anonymous under a different identity, which is virtual.
Establishing Your VW Identity
Here we will use one small example of a VW that has been around for over a decade and has experience with what we will term the “anonymity wall.”
Established by Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab (LL), which owns both Second Life (SL) and Tilia, the companion money services business, has had many years of mastering the art of user anonymity. Indeed, one could put forward a compelling argument that at the time of the creation of Second Life in June 2003, it undoubtedly offered innovative and disruptive solutions to the market in this area.
Virtual Worlds are complex environments to get used to, and therefore the joining process has to be as simple as possible.
The current method of signing up for Second Life (it has changed over the years to be politically correct and regarding last name usage) requires the following steps:
Every Avatar must have a first and last name. The choice of the first name is yours as long as it is unique. (Compare this to picking your email handle within any email system.)
You choose your username, though it must be unique within the system. Even if you prefer something like joe100010, it is legitimate, as long as it is unique.
The username and the UUID attached to that name determine what you own and your inventory (ownership will be discussed in another article.) You can change the screen name, but the username cannot be changed unless you pay a fee.
There are four points to consider here:
Most people do not tell the truth about the birthdate, just a simple fact. Your birthdate is required so that SL can determine if you are old enough to enter into their Moderate and Adult areas. (These are called “sims,” which are short for “simulators.” They represent virtual landmasses.)
An individual used to VR will always plan and create a new email for their Avatars. Very few will use their normative emails. Again, this is another layer of anonymity between the actual user and the virtual world.
Gender is determined by the body and clothes you decide to wear and whom your profile says you are.
There is no request for any factual identity information (except, as we pointed out, the birthdate, which can also be fudged.)
That is all there is to it.
What is essential to understand is as follows:
You have a “username” and, in many VWs, if you wish, a “screen name.” You will be known by your screen name. However, all purchases, ownership, inventory, and funds are attached to your UUID, which is from your “username.” Your screen name does not have any effect on these things.
Your IP is hidden, except it is known to the VW system company. There is no connection and no way of tracing you back to your real identity within the VR by another Avatar. Until you decide to transfer money into SL (or any VW) or take funds out, even LL cannot legally connect your real identity to your Avatar.
Ownership and finances in a VW are for different articles. However, we have now established how you set up a virtual identity. I have discussed in many previous posts (released on Medium, LinkedIn, and in Videos on YouTube and Vimeo), “Reality Redefined,” “Split Personalities,” “Who Am I?,” “Many Personalities — A Host of Problems,” and “What Is Reality?” some of the consequences of that Virtual identity. Nevertheless, now you are born again, free to become whomever and whatever you wish to become.
Let us be clear here.
It is highly recommended that one begins their VW entry with someone familiar with it. However, it is also unusual for someone in your real life to share with you that they are also an Avatar in a VW. Thus, the conundrum.
Virtual Worlds are not Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It is not social media in the accepted method. Unless you are pursuing a specific business, you are not in a VW to garner followers, likes, or achieve the normative desires of those posting on social media. SL Avatars run many Flickr, Facebook, Discord, and Instagram pages and groups. But all these are connected to Avatar names — not to real identities. Anonymity is the rule!
There are a few categories here, all of which bear much more attention than a short article can give it.
All funds brought into a VW such as SL and taken out of SL in real currency is done via Tilia, the second company owned by Linden Lab. Sound like a monopoly to you? Does it sound like a completely closed system with no competitors? It is and leaves absolutely no holes open to disrupt it unless you build your VW system to compete with SL. This is precisely what the Metaverse is doing and why cryptocurrency and NFTs have become such a hot topic in VWs due to their anonymity.
Let us even go farther. If I transfer funds into a VW such as SL, I do so via a credit card. This holds all my information, real identity, bank, etc. We all know this. Tilia then picks up this information, takes the amount I requested out of my credit card, and puts it into SL. If I purchased Lindens with that money (the SL virtual currency), the receipt does not come back with my real name but my Avatar name! Nowhere in any form do you get a receipt or acknowledgment in your real name. Tilia sends you nothing, and there is no way to get an official receipt from them as they are “only” the transferring company. The only way to get an official receipt for funds from LL is to go through a long, laborious, convoluted process to register for such things.
However, suppose I want to transfer funds from Lindens to a valued real currency. In that case, I must give Tilia (remember owned by LL) proof of identity, a tax number, or international evidence, all for tax purposes. However, unless you are one of the very few making tens of thousands of real USD in SL, this is no consequence.
Up until this point, it all seems completely benign. An individual maintains a virtual identity in a virtual world. That makes total sense. It can be an enjoyable, fun, and wonderful experience that it was meant to be. The world is locked. Your real identity is safe. You are now free from all restraints and can act out any dream or fantasy you ever had. You can role-play to your heart’s content. After all, again, that is was an RPG is for!
Virtual identity is an exciting phenomenon. It can open up dreams, allow people to explore their inner creativity, and even help others to support themselves. It solves the privacy issue. Yet it also must come with responsibility. And until this point in time, society, legal systems, ethics, business structures, and psychology have not kept up with the changes. It is time we do so. A virtual identity only works when a real identity is behind it. If there are no checks and balances on the virtual world besides taxation, and everything is hidden, we open ourselves to a considerable amount of risk.
Breaching the Anonymity Wall
Let me give you a scenario. One which is about to happen with the Metaverse and the whole slew of Virtual Worlds. It will break the mold of anonymity so carefully introduced by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, and followed faithfully throughout the two decades of VWs and their operations. It will also cause us to confront even more ethical, business, and legal problems. The worst part is that we are so behind on privacy legislation that it is becoming impossible for legal and ethical systems to catch up to the Metaverse.
You have an Avatar which you carefully designed and protected behind that wall of anonymity. No one knows who you are. Indeed, you could be talking to your next-door neighbor and never know it. You have given the minimal information required to the system to sign up. You have also established a new email for your VW identity. You may even use a VPN to mask your actual IP address. In simple terminology, you have taken every possible precaution you can take to conceal your identity and information.
So far, it follows the anonymous scenario, our “anonymity wall.” However, now you explore the Metaverse (a “catch-all” term defining a conglomeration of different companies using varying technologies.) And you find all your favorite companies selling their virtual wares. Nothing until this point breaks the anonymity wall.
Nike has decided to offer 30% off their “real,” not “virtual” shoes if you buy them online in their VW. This is not unusual. We all know that many companies offer deep discounts if you purchase something through their Apps. Not just online via their website, but only through their app. So, offering a special discount to buy a real object in a VW is not such a different idea. And let us not forget, a discount of 25% can be worth a lot of saved money.
So, you purchase it. Either with funds in the VW which you have or with cryptocurrency. Nike cannot trace your Avatar back to your actual identity. One minor point you have forgotten. A physical object must be delivered to you. It requires an address, phone number, and name. It cannot be delivered to an Avatar name as you have no way of proving when it arrives that you are the person who is supposed to receive the object.
With that one purchase, Nike now knows the Avatar is connected to a specific individual. And instantly, advertisements can be targeted to you within the Virtual World due to that knowledge. Your Avatar personality and your real personality can be combined into one dataset, and once that is done, all the targeting on the web will also take place in a VW.
And just like that — all your careful planning has been destroyed with just one purchase! The anonymity wall is gone.
And now, even if you go through all the steps to create yet another alter-personality and build another Avatar, it will do you no good.
Be careful out there! However effective you think you are at hiding your actual identity, it won’t work for long. Sooner or later, you will be lured into a purchase of a real object. (I should mention that SL does not yet allow such things to happen, but it will have to if it wishes to stay relevant.) You have destroyed your anonymity wall the moment you do so, which is precisely what the companies want you to do. VW or Web — makes no difference.
Be careful out there. Even if it is all virtual!
About the Photographers:
Poko is the pseudonym for a Second Life Photographer. If-What-If is proud to use her work. She usually posts her photography from Virtual Worlds on Flickr.
Violetta Raine is the pseudonym for a Second Life Photographer. She usually posts her photography from Virtual Worlds on Flickr.
All the Avatar photographs included in this article were taken in Second Life.
Thank you for sharing this informative article about virtual worlds and the importance of understanding virtual identity in them. I appreciate the emphasis on the separation of screen name and UUID, as well as the anonymity of IP addresses in virtual worlds servreality.com It's also helpful to learn about the process of transferring funds into and out of virtual machines, as well as Tilia's role as an interpreter company.