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WMU prof edits new book on security in 'virtual worlds'

by Mark Schwerin

May 23, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU's Dr. Alan Rea.
Dr. Alan Rea
KALAMAZOO--It's not enough that you have to worry about security in the real world.

A Western Michigan University professor is among the first to tackle the emerging issue of security in immersive or artificial environments. And there's plenty to be concerned about, from identity theft to theft of real or virtual property.

Dr. Alan Rea, a WMU professor of business information systems, is the editor and has written multiple chapters in the new book "Security in Virtual Worlds, 3D Webs and Immersive Environments: Models for Development, Interaction and Management." The book was published earlier this year by IGI Global and offers insights into business, policy and technology issues as they relate to security challenges from a variety of international academic researchers and business leaders.

In light of the ubiquitous nature of the Internet today, the popularity of virtual worlds--computer-based, simulated environments--has been growing rapidly and that growth has generated concerns about security, Rea says. The online community World of Warcraft, a popular massively multiplayer gaming world, has 12 million subscribers alone, potentially putting them at risk if they don't take precautions.

"There are instances where people's personal information has been stolen by obtaining their login and password through various means," Rea says. "Many people accumulate virtual goods that do have value, not only within the virtual world, and sometimes even in the real world people will pay for virtual goods within those worlds with physical currency. So accounts have been hacked and those items are sold off."

Identity theft, a fairly common and sometimes disastrous occurrence in the real world, has taken place in the world of computer-generated realms, Rea adds.

"Maybe people have not broken into your account," Rea says, "but they've been able to befriend you within this virtual world and learn tidbits about you. There are instances of people slowly creating a real profile of a person and finding out who it is from just bits and pieces of their virtual identities."

Just as in the real world, there's also the problem of taking a virtual world item, reproducing it and selling it or giving it away to friends, Rea adds.

For companies such as Second Life, an online realm used for business, education and entertainment, there's money to be made in virtual worlds, Rea says. Not only does the company that creates the world make money, but also companies that set up shop in that world can sell virtual goods, and many people do just that.

"Entrepreneurs offer virtual goods from homes to cars to clothing," Rea says. "If you create a virtual shirt and somebody wants to buy it for their avatar, your virtual representation in that world, that's great. But we all know digital goods are easy to reproduce. So there must be some way in the virtual realm to protect that shirt so somebody can't grab it and make 15 copies and give it to all their friends."

Cover art from Security in Virtual Worlds, 3D Webs and Immersive Environments.
Protecting assets in virtual worlds
The book is the culmination of almost three years of work and many hours spent in front of the computer screen for Rea. It is believed to be the first to take a hard look at securely managing interactions in the virtual realm.

"I found there was a huge growth in these virtual realms," Rea says. "Whether it will still be like this in five years, nobody knows, but there will be some form of virtual presence out there. And I found some of the same security issues in these virtual realms that were already present in the physical realm, as well as in Internet and e-commerce offerings."

Many of the same safeguards apply to the virtual realm as the real world, Rea says. People should closely guard their personal information, such as logins, passwords and credit card numbers.

The book also shares tips for companies doing business in virtual worlds on how to protect their assets and copyrights, interact properly with people in the virtual realm and protect against "griefing," the act of harassing others, including businesses, in virtual environments.

In general, people shouldn't get lulled into a false sense of security by thinking it's not "the real world," Rea stresses.

"A lot of times when people are in these virtual worlds, they feel a bit protected because there's this veil between who they are and where they are," Rea says. "But that veil can easily be torn. Or a lot of information from your personal life that you would not want to be public might slowly filter out. Just because someone is friendly online doesn't mean they're friendly offline."

For more information about Rea's book, visit IGI Global online.