Security Risks Very Real in Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds can offer new options for collaboration and online retail, but security researchers at the ShmooCon conference advise vigilance. 

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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 Washington, D.C.

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 Baltimore, after the presentation.

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Major corporations, most notably IBM, 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 information.

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 patched.

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.