Tuesday, March 22, 2005

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WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

Laura_skye

Got a philandering spouse? Property needs securing? Marked for vendetta? Online gumshoes for hire in Second Life-- rates from L$100/hour, plus expenses.  (Originally published here.)

Laura Skye had an inkling that her lover was unfaithful, and had gone back to tomcatting in the racier nightclubs, where the working girl avatars come with loose clothing and even looser morals. So she hired herself a private investigator, to do some snooping.

"I found out he went with an escort," she tells me at my office, "and we had a big argument. And then he promised no more. But I didn't trust him." So she clicked on the Find button-- Second Life's equivalent of the yellow pages-- and put "detective" in the search slot.

Which is how she wound up at the office and the private cave hideout of Markie Macdonald, P.I.

Markie_macdonald_pi

"We set up a honey trap," says Ms. Macdonald.   "You know, nice female avatar... flirted quite a bit." 

In a honey trap, a gorgeous woman or a handsome man is hired to approach the target of an infidelity investigation, lay down some seductive patter on him or her, and see if the suspected philanderer takes the bait.

In_the_cave_with_mm

"The avatar was ordered only to take it so far," Markie tells me.  "[W]e charged L$1,000-- it was a one night job."

In-world, Markie Macdonald is a slinky, voluptuous redhead in a form-fitting gown; were she in a Raymond Chandler novel, she'd be the ingenue who undulates into Marlowe's office pleading for help. Instead, she's the one who owns and runs an investigation firm, with several undercover agents in her employ. (When she's not overwhelmed by her real life job as an IT manager for a multi-national based in Scotland, that is.)

Macspi_office

And as odd as it may seem, Markie Macdonald isn't the only private detective in Second Life.

"[I]t appears as if infidelity is a big problem here," Bruno Buckenburger notes, chuckling. A friend once asked Bruno to investigate her cheating boyfriend, and this gave him the idea to hang out his own for-hire shingle. When we talked a few weeks ago, Bruno hadn't even started advertising, but "through word of mouth, we've gotten referrals. Again, women (mostly) want to check up on their men, and so they introduce the agent to the boyfriend, and the agent hits on the guy, and in all cases... the guy bites and winds up cheating." So Buckenburger runs a successful honeypot operation of his own, though he's careful to make sure his employees don't run afoul of the law-- i.e., Linden Lab's Terms of Service agreement.

"We do review TOS with them and make sure they don't wind up stalking the guy just to get the job done," says Buckenburger. "We make sure the client introduces the agent to the boyfriend so it doesn't wind up being stalking. So far, the boyfriend always winds up hitting on the agent right after the introduction." To prove their case, Bruno prefers that his agents take an incriminating screenshot with the target-- or just as good, have the agent teleport the client right to their location, to catch their unfaithful partner in a compromising position.

"Then," Bruno adds, "the agent gets out quickly."  But the tricky bit there is billing. 

"It's T and M work," Bruno explains. "The time is charged up front for the effort and the materials are billed upon delivery. If you sell a pic you collect right away. If you have a teleport situation, you have to get the money after they have seen the cheater." Buckenberger's worried that once the client has teleported to their partner's den of iniquity, they can just teleport away, without paying the remainder of their balance to the agent on site.

"My gut tells me that we will have problems," says Bruno, "since contracts here seem to be hard to enforce."

Buckenberger's fees for this service run around L$500. "But, as with any other service," he says, "it depends on time and task. Really, it only takes a couple hours to wrap up a case, as long as everyone is online." He roars with laughter. "I mean after all, hot babes and cheaters-- they are not going for coffee." Like Markie, Bruno's roster of undercover sting agents is secret; and in his case, at least, they're even secret to themselves.

"Two of the agents know each other," he says, "but I am the only one who knows all of them."

Not all the detectives' cases involve infidelity. Macdonald's taken a couple security jobs, for example, one involving straight-up property surveillance, another involving a misplaced alarm system. ("A security orb was set too high," she says of the latter. "The client was very happy, he thought there was a vendetta on him.") In this, the online private detective assumes the role of both technical support and standards enforcer-- jobs usually reserved to company employees. Then again, this is not necessarily surprising. In the real world, the private detective is also a surrogate for the State, responding to structural or practical shortcomings in governance, taking on cases that law enforcement officials are too constrained or too strapped to handle.

More often than not, however, the bread and butter of the Second Life private investigator revolves around the affairs of the heart, and the deceptions they bring-- and this being Second Life, they also revolve around the question of what those two things mean, to different people.

"[T]he interview is where people get tense," Markie Macdonald tells me. We've gone to the private cave she shares with several Residents. It's surrounded by a security barrier, which makes it the ideal place to take her clients, when they're ready to tell her their story in total privacy.

"One minute it's funny, then next, reality hits," she says. "I've had two people walk out, just 'cause I warned them of what might happen... We try and warn people that just 'cause they are in Second Life love... some people may not be as serious as the other [person]."

And so Markie puts some hard questions to her would-be clients. "Do you want to waste the fun? Why not ask them [if they're cheating], without paying a stranger? Do you want to think your Second Life or Real Life partner would set a honey trap, or get strangers to spy on their partners?"

Because as she tells it, many of her clients have a Second Life partner who also happen to be their real life lover. 

Which was the case with Macdonald's client Laura Skye. Dave Barmy wasn't just her partner in Second Life. In the material world, they also share a home together. They don't log in-world at the same time, however, since they have two computers but one only working monitor. "We take it in two hour shifts," Laura explains. So only Dave was in-world, when she passed by their monitor, looked over his shoulder-- and found him in flagrante delicto with a working girl avatar.   Laura Skye was not happy about that, not at all.

"Why, exactly?" I ask her, when I meet with her at my office on Shipley cliffs. "It's just in a computer, right? He's not really cheating."

Laura_at_hamlet_office

"He says the same thing, but I don't agree," says Laura. "I feel it's cheating with me. Because it's something I don't agree with... he knew it, and it hurt my feelings."

In Second Life, it's possible to designate another Resident as your "Partner", and have them listed on your in-world profile as such. (A way of giving virtual weddings more substance beyond a public ceremony.) Laura Skye and Dave Barmy were designated as Partners, until she walked in on him and the tart for hire.

Laura_on_sl_divorce

"Then I divorced him in-world," she says, then throws her head back, laughing. "I went on the Second Life website and clicked on the divorce thing. He got an e-mail saying I left him." And she made him promise that he'd never seek the company of another in-world woman again.

Still, she had her doubts.

"If you had found out he was cheating on you in Second Life," I ask her, "how would that effect your real life relationship?"

"It would be the end of the relationship."

"You would break up with him in real life?"

"Oh yes."

"That'd be difficult, too, wouldn't it, since you live together?"

"Yes it would," Laura Skye tells me, "but I would not allow that to happen."

So she set the agents of Markie Macdonald on Dave Barmy, and waited to hear what happened. 

"[Markie] reported back to me every day with timings," she says, "where he was, and at what time. Amazed me. Like he went shopping, went to a few nightclubs, stayed at his house."

Then he met Markie's honey trap.  And they set to talking.

"And guess what," Markie Macdonald says, picking up the story. "He talked about his partner [with her] all night! Who says men are all bad!" Given the opportunity to cheat, Dave Barmy had just talked about Laura. "When we reported back," says Markie, "the client was head over heels as well."

"I was very relieved," Laura tells me. 

But I'm curious how he felt.  "Was he angry with you?"

"A little, but I had every reason to do so... I have no reason to feel guilty. I don't want to seem like I'm a control freak or anything like that," she adds, "'cause I'm not. I've just been hurt a lot in the past... I'm a very emotional person and I do allow my feelings to come in here."

For his part, Dave Barmy described himself as "shocked, I guess", when his real life partner told him about the in-world test he'd just passed with flying colors. Still, he insists, "I had nothing to hide so I didn't really mind-- if she wants to waste her money on a private dick, that's her problem."

I'm talking with him on the rooftop of his winter chalet, next to his Cobra gunship. He's streaming a classic rock Internet radio station onto his property, so while we talk, Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" beats around us.

I ask him why he wanted to solicit a lady of the evening avatar in the first place.

Davebarmy_002

"Well," says Dave, "I just hadn't done it [before], so I thought I would try to see what it was all about in Second Life... It was OK, but I can think of better things to spend L$500 on." Dave Barmy has a dark goatee and wears a giant chain on his bare chest. "I didn't realize going with an escort would hurt [my] real life girlfriend.

"It's good," he says of their relationship now, post-honeytrap.  "Ups and downs like all relationships, but mostly good."

"Things are a lot better now," Laura agrees, earlier. "Still a few little arguments, but every couple has 'em... there isn't so much tension as there was before." But that's just in their day-to-day world offline. They still haven't become a couple again in Second Life.

"Maybe one day when I feel ready," says Laura Skye, "then I might take him back in-world."

* * *

"Business is running well," Markie Macdonald told me last weekend. "Maybe too well. I need more staff." I had originally spoken with her several weeks ago, and I wanted an update on the business.

"In fact," she continues, "just followed someone to the boxing [match]... With no advertising, I've got three cases on just now." This would make it twelve clients, in just three months of operation. Among them is "one hell of a jealous man! He wants 24x7 surveillance. Been three days now." And on the third day, she says triumphantly, "We got her! Being totally unfaithful. Having an affair with a male stripper."

But that case gets more complicated. "This story also has a family," she says. "[T]he target and the client are the 'parents' of three kids." Some Residents not only have partnerships, but end up "adopting" children, or quite literally create some of their own. (Longtime Resident Andie Apollo recently devoted her Second Life to creating babies that cried and cooed and responded to their designated parents' voice-- and gave them up for adoption to dozens of Residents.)

So Markie's latest case could ruin an entire in-world family, too.  I ask her if she'd regret having a hand in this. 

"But she is being unfaithful, so she is breaking up the family!" says Markie.

When I last spoke to Bruno Buckenburger, he was hoping to get away from the honeytrap line, and pick up more clients in the often cutthroat business of nightclubs.

"I would really like to focus on that area eventually," he says. "For some, there are real money issues [involved], and they would benefit by having someone on the inside." Many of the more popular clubs are run on large tracts of land, or private islands, and that costs their owner's money-- sometimes hundreds of US dollars per month. Then again, the most successful clubs can bring in a sweet cash take for them, too. So when Second Life nightclubs engage in sabotage and other acts of vandalism, to bring their competitors down (as it's rumored) things can get ugly. This behavior would constitute "griefing", and a violation of Linden community rules-- but then, maybe some owners would prefer to hire their own flatfoot to track the saboteurs down, rather than wait for the cops to arrive.

"I was in the Air Force and did some work with military intelligence," Bruno says. "You ever heard of C3I? Command, Control, Communications Intelligence? Mainly making sure important data was transferred securely. Back in the 80s. Cold war stuff. Nothing terribly sexy. We watched the Soviets, they watched us." Maybe that background will serve him well, in his next venture.

"Really," he says, "it is just a matter of having people gathering information from the bombers. I've met some interesting characters who are like informants... the key is separating the B.S. from fact. That is a tough nut to crack, since we need multiple sources for confirmation of information. Plus with [alternate accounts], we have people keeping an eye on us too." He grins, and winks. "It's a pretty shady underworld here."

Before Laura Skye left my office after a long conversation, she added one last thing.

"The reason why I'm fed up with being hurt," she told me, "is I was married before." This was recently, in the real world. In fact, just before she got together with Dave. Her ex-husband was abusive, she says; so abusive, that at one point, she actually feared for her safety.

"I'm more mentally scarred than anything," she adds. "I still suffer flashbacks... [my] relationship died on that day. I got married too young, that was my problem."

I ask her if this explains her protectiveness over this relationship she has with Dave Barmy, so fierce that she brought in a third party, to investigate the truth behind it.

"Yes, very much so," says Laura Skye. "I'm scared of being on my own."

Last I heard from Bruno Buckenburger, he was still building the office on his property which will house his agency, "so clients can see a storefront."

But not much more than a storefront.

Bruno_buckenberger

"Agents aren't allowed to be seen around here," says Bruno. "Anonymity. Probably over-cautious, but we don't want random people seeing who comes and goes. If an agent hangs out here, someone may (or may not) put two plus two together."

So the undercover agents keep roaming the world, unknown to anyone but the detectives who employ them, seeking out their targets in secluded places, looking for some crucial breach of trust, or some momentary loss of faith. Or on better days, an opportunity to digitally validate the realness of love.

Belated postscript:  many thanks to RenZephyr Zircon for the initial tip on this story.

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