Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Virtual world, virtual cops

I was chatting with a friend the other day – a former police officer, who now works in the area of computer crime. We were talking specifically about virtual worlds like Second Life and, basically, about whether they may evolve their own law enforcement presence.

Virtual world, virtual police . . . ? It’s an interesting idea. I found a clip on YouTube showing a police chase in Second Life. Although, as far as I know, there are no actual virtual cops in Second Life. It’s an interesting notion.

Then today I find this news story from China, which says that as of September 1 the Beijing police will be using virtual police officers to patrol the Internet:

Police in China's capital said Tuesday they will start patrolling the Web using animated beat officers that pop up on a user's browser and walk, bike or drive across the screen warning them to stay away from illegal Internet content.

Starting Sept. 1, the cartoon alerts will appear every half hour on 13 of China's top portals . . .and by the end of the year will appear on all Web sites registered with Beijing servers, the Beijing Public Security Ministry said. . . .

The male and female cartoon officers, designed for the ministry by Sohu (one of China’s web portals), will offer a text warning to surfers to abide by the law and tips on Internet security as they move across the screen in a virtual car, motorcycle or on foot. . .
If you go to the story linked above, you can see the little virtual cops, a male officer with his virtual motorcyle and a female officer with her virtual police car. (I’m assuming there are lots more of these animations . . . I wonder if they all look just alike? I assume the female officers only use police cars, since they’re wearing skirts . . . but maybe there are variations, and some wear pants. Why do I care?)

I have an initial reaction to this effort, and several questions (substantive questions, not the idle ones outlined above).

My reaction is that I would find having these people popping up on my browser to be INCREDIBLY annoying. Maybe someone with computer skills and a certain irreverence (hacker?) will come up with a way to eliminate them . . . but maybe that would qualify as a virtual assault on a police officer. I’m joking about the latter part, but I suspect it would be some kind of crime in China to interfere with these things.

My initial question is, what makes the Public Security Ministry think these things will be particularly effective? If they are only intended to discourage Chinese web users from accessing content that is outlawed in China, then I can maybe see how that could be effective . . . It could be like having a Walt Disneyesque Big Brother hanging around to remind you to avoid pornography and unrestrained political discussions and postings and other, similarly undesirable things. (The news story above notes that China closes down sites that are “obscene or subversive.”)

If they are actually intended to discourage real criminal activity online, then I do not think they will have any effect, at all. As I rather jokingly noted above, I suspect it would not be at all difficult for a talented person to either eliminate them or turn them into rogue operatives who direct people to porn and/or open political discussion groups.

I’m not going to inflict all of the questions I came up with upon you, but here’s one more: Why virtual cops? Why be so literal? You could, I think, accomplish the same thing with a button or a logo or something more abstract. And if you have to have virtual cops, why make them look like Hello Kitty? You could make them really weird and interesting . . . or really abstract and interesting. These cartoons look like something I’d expect to find on a children’s website. I can’t imagine that anyone would take them seriously, but, then, I probably underestimate the Public Security Ministry.

It is a little creepy. Hello Kitty people as virtual spies


Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, there really are cops in Second Life. At least people roleplaying cops.


And also real cops recruiting there...


Susan Brenner said...

I didn't know that. Thank you.

I'll have to check both out.