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Second life plagued by 'grey goo' attack

Viruses go virtual

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For about two hours, the virtual landscape of Second Life filled with golden rings and the distinctive two-tone ding of Sega's popular Sonic the Hedgehog games.

The rings' listed creator was the fictional "Dr Robotnik," a character from the Sonic games. However, the deluge of rings was not some form of cross promotion, but a viral attack of self-replicating objects, known less than affectionately as "grey goo."

"The rings were flying from every direction - there were an incredible amount them," one in-game observer, who asked only to be identified by his avatar's name "Amulius Lioncourt," said in an interview with SecurityFocus.

In a video that Lioncourt made from screen captures, the rings spun on the ground and streaked through the sky. The distinctive Sonic the Hedgehog sound punctuated the video every few seconds. The attack left the servers responding slowly, resulting in a variety of side effects, including unreliable account balances, disappearing clothes, and shutting down in-game teleportation, which digital inhabitants use to get around quickly, according to Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life.

"The problem seems to be tied to heavy load on the database," the company said on its Second Life forum on Sunday.

Within 15 minutes, Linden Lab detected the outbreak and cleaned out the servers, although it took about two hours to get everything back to semblance of normal, according to a timeline in the forum posts. The response - the fastest yet, in Lioncourt's experience - showed that the company has started to gain experience in combating such attacks.

It's experience that will likely be necessary in the future.

As virtual worlds bring together a greater number of people and become increasingly interactive, virus writers and other malicious coders will likely focus more effort in attacking such online meeting places. Second Life has already suffered three major attacks since September, each time being overrun by quickly reproducing digital objects. In October, a series of attacks - one incorporating bouncing beach balls with processor-taxing particle effects - made the online lives of Second Life's residence stuttering and sometimes brief, as the company took down servers to clean them out.

Linden Lab is not the only firm that has to deal with such problems. In the World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment's hit massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a digital disease created last year was spread beyond its intended area to the online world at large by griefers intent on killing other players' in-game avatars. While the disease had been added by Blizzard developers, several players discovered the implementation flaw and used the disease to attack other players in the world.

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