Virtual worlds can offer new options for collaboration and online
retail, but security researchers at the ShmooCon conference advise
Virtual worlds can have some very real security concerns-something
security researchers Charles Miller and Dino Dai Zovi showed Feb. 16 at the
ShmooCon 4 conference in
The duo received press last year when they used a flaw in Apple's QuickTime
movie playback software to craft an exploit for Second Life, an Internet-based
virtual world designed by Linden Lab. The exploit allowed them to take control
of a player's avatar, or character, and transfer money from the compromised
player when their avatar walked within a certain distance of an infected object
they planted. The character then would shout, "I got hacked."
The money, called Linden Dollars, can be exchanged for real greenbacks, so
while the game itself is not real, the financial impact of such a hack can be
very much so. With the QuickTime flaw now patched, Miller and Dai Zovi
demonstrated the attack to a packed house at ShmooCon. There are ways to make
the attack even more undetectable, such as hiding the infected object inside
things in the virtual world, the researchers said.
"I don't think people really knew about [the risks]," said Miller, principal
analyst at Independent Security Evaluators in
after the presentation.
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Major corporations, most notably
have begun experimenting with virtual worlds like Second Life as ways of
improving employee collaboration and increasing the value of online customer
touch points. Retailers have also been experimenting with virtual worlds as
complements to their e-commerce stores.
Symantec said that threats targeting persistent virtual worlds and MMOGs
(massively multiplayer online games) such as Blizzard Entertainment's "World
of Warcraft" will increase in 2008 as the number of players continues to
rise. "World of Warcraft" users have been targeted in the past by
hackers who use keyloggers and other methods to steal account log-in
The Second Life hack performed by Dai Zovi and Miller worked because Second
Life allows players to embed media files in Second Life objects, and it is
possible to have QuickTime video constantly enabled. Keeping pace with the
threat landscape, at least for users, means making sure all patches are
current, said Dai Zovi, an author and independent researcher.
"Users should do the things they already should be doing," he said, adding
that increased awareness helps.
The designers of the games can also help by forcing users to upgrade to new
clients, Miller said, adding that Linden Lab has added a feature verifying that
users are running a version of QuickTime where the flaw the duo exploited is
In some ways, security in a virtual world can be a Catch 22; for example,
Linden Lab wants the experience to be interactive and for players to be able to
build things, leaving the door open for exploits, Miller said.
"That's the danger too," he said.