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Virtual Worlds, Real Cheaters

The author of a new book, "Exploiting Online Games," says that cheaters are infesting online worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life, and they could become a threat to mainstream business systems.

Cheaters are following legitimate users into virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. And the techniques those cheaters learn can become a threat to service-oriented architectures used for business.

Cheating in online games has led to lawsuits and efforts from game makers to spy on their players.

Such cheating also could become a security problem within the massively distributed systems that many companies have deployed or are renting from service providers to act as the foundation for their service-oriented architectures, Gary McGraw, a security researcher and CTO for security services provider Cigital, told InformationWeek. "If you think about the kinds of security issues tied in with MMORPGs, they're an indicator of things to come as we adopt SOA," he said.

Online games are designed to follow the client/server model, and there are millions of people playing these games while connected to a server, which has to keep track of all the information about the virtual world in which the gamers operate. This information includes, for example, the X, Y, and Z coordinates for a gamer's avatar. If the server can be attacked and these coordinates changed, the gamer is able to essentially "teleport" his character throughout this virtual world regardless of the movement rules established by the game, said McGraw, whose new book "Exploiting Online Games," written with fellow security researcher Greg Hoglund, debuts this week. What's to stop business users from doing the same to business applications?

With the gaming market expected to reach $12 billion in annual revenue by 2009, game developers have a strong incentive to keep their players honest. This has led to an arms race of sorts between less honest gamers and the software companies that produce the games. "These software companies are installing spyware to make sure gamers aren't cheating," McGraw said, adding that World of Warcraft does this through a piece of software it calls The Warden. In response, McGraw and his colleagues wrote a piece of software they call The Governor, which tracks The Warden. "The Warden reports on non-World of Warcraft items that reside on gamers' computers," he said, adding that it can track the version of Windows that the gamer is using and even what they're writing in their IMs.

Games and virtual worlds also have online economies that map back to the real economy. Internet Gaming Entertainment, which McGraw estimates saw about $400 million in revenue last year, has been in business since 2001 selling virtual gold or other items that can be used to improve one's standing in online games, including Final Fantasy VI, Lord of the Rings Online, and World of Warcraft. One player in October 2005 even paid MindArk--makers of the Project Entropia game--$100,000 for the rights to a virtual asteroid space resort, McGraw said.

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