Did you know there are automated avatars that move around the Second Life grid, popping into places for a few moments, leaving without a trace…and then maybe coming back again hours, weeks, or months later? Me either…until I made my own roaming bot for my Avatar Survey. But it turns out there are many, many more — well over a hundred — and I could make them land on my head! Countless hours of nerdy fun. So I started keeping tabs on them. I've loosely grouped these avatars into a series of "cohorts" based on their behaviours and other traits.
Roaming Bots: Latest Figures
Here are some statistics about the numbers of grid-roaming bots I've seen and the cohorts into which I've arbitrarily grouped them, organised by month. The "sightings" number just indicates sample size and is not a good indicator of overall bot activity; see Methodology, below.
New cohort this month: The Saddlers! They might just be the latest iteration of the Nonzies
, but who knows. The Rilbrenats just keep chugging along, while the operator of the BOPs has found this page and has let his bots run around the clock in hopes of getting a "high score" here. In that case, well done: saw the BOPs more than any other grid-roaming cohort this month.
Weird month! Big cohorts like the Nonzies and 1001s remain offline (as does SurveyTeam, although members have been spotted briefly, presumably doing testing). Heck, even some of the most-obvious trafficbot groups were offline for Christmas. The stalwart Rilbrenats went offline for a bit…just as new group of older avatars behaving as bots appeared. I've christened them the Zoombies (because they zoom around and appear to be one-time "real" SL accounts that have risen from the dead—yes, one can buy abandoned SL accounts from a number of online marketplaces). Their appearance also allowed me to move a couple bots tentatively groups with the Rilbrenats (based on age, mainly) into the Zoombies: the Rilbranats don't tend to pose as ancient real users. So I went back and updated recent months' data. An irregular hobbyist cohort I've dubbed the "BOPs" was also active enough during the month to merit their own listing (they aren't exactly new, but have been grouped with "all others").
Another slow month, with two established cohorts (the 1001s and SurveyTeam) and the now-you-see-them-now-you-don't Nonzies remaining offline. The Hons, however, disappeared for a bit then reappeared, and seem to be ramping up to their former pace. The "All Others" category is now accounting for a sufficient number of sightines that I'm considering breaking that out further; however, several of the "cohorts" grouped there consist of only one or two bots: hard to categorise a group when the group is that small!
In other news, I've begun refining ways to detect groups of non-roaming bots (groups that log in to a single location) and roaming-limited bots (groups that move only through a set of predefined locations). Some of those efforts are bearing fruit, but the figures aren't reflected above as the bots are not truly "roaming."
[Updated Jan 2020 to break out Zoombies.]
Slow month! Two of our major cohorts—SurveyTeam and the 1001s—were essentially offline entirely. SurveyTeam's operator confirms they're offline for retooling; no idea what's up with the 1001s. Interestingly, the new-to-the-grid Nonzies disappered along with them, so maybe there's some connection there after all. Maybe everybody is too busy with real life. The Rilbrenats—the oldest cohort—apparently has its act together, though, and stepped up activity during the month. [Updated Jan 2020 to break out Zoombies.]
So those new bots that appeared at the end of August I thought might be fresh 1001s? They're not. I've split them off into a new cohort called the "Nonzies
"—I've updated August's numbers to reflect that, but I don't know if we'll know anything more about them anytime soon as they all seem to have gone offline at various points during September. Amongst are familiar cohorts, sightings for the 1001s were down (maybe they're visiting a better class of places?) but the number of active 1001s is about normal. SurveyTeam and the Rilbrenats are still chugging along, and I've identified several new "singleton" bots that roam around.
In other excitement, I ran into another SL user who stalks bots, and they turned me on to a group that seems designed to exploit traffic-generating games like sploders, fishing, and "gold hunt." They don't roam the whole grid, so their traffic is not included here.
[Updated Jan 2020 to break out Zoombies.]
In August I spent much of by bot-time making sure my methods of avoiding false positives are effective. (So far so good!) The Rilbrenats and SurveyTeam maintained their pace. I haven't identified any new bots in The Hons so August probably represents their "normal" activity. The 1001s seem to have retired a few individual avatars, but a new cluster of maybe-replacement bots turned up right at the end of August that
I've tentatively grouped with the 1001s based on behaviours
grouped as a new cohort, the Nonzies
(updated 1 Oct 1 2019
). The monitors also identified a group of apparent traffic bots this month. They don't roam the whole grid so they aren't in these statistics; I have reported that group to Linden Lab.
New cohort in July: The Hons
—they're generally young and visit mainland and private estates. Don't know what they do. The Rilbrenats were back to full tilt in July, while (as predicted) the number of unique 1001s sighted during the month declined. SurveyTeam continues to hop around mainland continuously: sometimes the bots even visit the same region at the same time. The increase is sightings for SurveyTeam is primarily due to very-frequent sightings of one SurveyTeam bot that only moves around Zinda (SL's "adult" continent). Zindra isn't very big so it tends to visit regions many times a day.
Big month for the 1001s! In mid-June their operator apparently took one set of bots offline and replaced them with (mostly) younger bots—and, if anything, they seem even faster-paced in their travels: it's no longer unusual to see the same 1001 bot visit a single region several times a day. Most of the currently-active 1001s were created in mid-May, suggesting whoever runs the 1001s plans ahead and "ages" new accounts so they are more than 30 days old when they come online. The number of 1001s sighted during June reflects both the new and recently-replaced bots, so I expect July will have a lower figure. Right at the end of the month, they appear to have changed their methodology so they now arrive at ground level rather than a prefered 1001m.
The ever-aging Rilbrenats seem to be back at full speed, while the
3524s SurveyTeam seems to be maintaining its pace. The two GDN bots haven't been seen in months, suggesting that "data project" is at least on hiatus. Several new bots appeared during June as well; some are clearly part of a single new cohort, but I don't yet have enough information on the others to make any assessment yet. One appears to traverse mainland public waterways (presumably looking for security devices or builds impeding public access, but who knows?). It looks like a toy drone; if it bumps into an avatar, it apologises and shoots up into the sky. I might accidentally have "nudged" it a few times. Sorry.
The Rilbrenats still don't seem to be running at full steam—or maybe they're just spending more time away from my monitors. The 1001s and
3524s SurveyTeam remain very active and continue to occasionally hit the same region several times in a short span. Occasionally, one seems to get stuck for as long as 15 minutes; that might be due to network issues Linden Lab has been fighting. I believe two new roaming bots appeared this month.
The Rilbrenats took part of the month off, only beginning to re-appear on the grid towards the end of April. However, the 1001s and
3524s SurveyTeam were both very active, with the same bot sometimes visiting the same region several times within 24 hours.
All the major groups of bots seem to be very active this month, and I've gradually expanded my methodology to hopefully gather more sightings and perhaps identify less-active bots.
Now that I'm looking for them, cohorts seem to be clearer. The Rilbenats are quite old, while The 1001s are pretty young. And an even younger group of bots just appeared towards the end of February:
The 3524s SurveyTeam.
Initial figures begin to suggest different cohorts of grid-roaming bots.
What are those weird names? Here ya go:
The Rilbrenats seem to be the oldest bots on the grid: many of them date from mid 2009, although I think a few are a bit older and a bit younger. They tend to appear on a region, "pirouette" clockwise, then vanish. They visit both mainland and private estates. So named because many of them bear the first names Riley, Brenden, and Natalia — and those were the first three to land on my head! The Rilbrenats seem to carry many inworld scripts (some are very script heavy). I don't know what these bots are doing. Most have blank profiles; a few appear to be repurposed personal avatars.
- The 1001s
I first saw the 1001s in August 2018; the operator(s) appear to cycle out avatars and rotate in new ones fairly regularly. They visit both mainland and private estates. So named because they used to prefer to arrive at initial altitude of 1001m. Most 1001s have blank profiles and carry two to three inworld scripts; some are full alpha (full transparent inworld); others are default avatars. I don't know their purpose.
SurveyTeam (I initially called them The 3524s) is a group of bots operating on mainland since February 2019. (The operator of the bots saw this page and got in touch.) They're very lightweight in terms of server/script load, prefer to arrive at 3524m altitude unless they are drawn to a landing point, and almost always depart quickly. SurveyTeam reviews land ownership information for regions: parcel sizes, owners, sale prices, prim capacity, ownership, etc., and makes the information accessible and searchable by avatar or group key (UUID) — that information is public in-world, but Linden Lab does not make it searchable. Want to see for yourself? Go to SurveyTeam.xyx and sign in with your SL username to get a validation code sent to you inworld. Enter that validation code (it's like a one-time password) and take a look. (Remember, the data are mainland-only.)
- The Hons
This cohort of roaming bots began to zoom around the grid in seriousness in July 2019, although a few appeared in June. My name for the cohort is pronounced "Huhns" — try it with a fake Southern US accent, hon. The bots visit both mainland regions and private estates; their visits are brief but often not as rapid as other cohorts. No idea yet what they're up to. Most of the bots are quite young, and several have suggestive and/or adult-oriented names.
- The Nonzies
The Nonzies appeared at the end of August 2019…and then seemingly packed up shop (at least for a while) during September 2019. Never "caught" one for a through examination; they visited both mainland and private regions, and are named for their nonsense-word avatar names.
- The Zoombies
The Zoombies are a group of quite-old SL accounts that appear to have belonged to real users are some point, but are now being used as bots. Some of the Zoombies are on the grid constantly; others appear to come and go. A "new" gaggle of Zoombies appeared in December 2019 and made it easier to identify the cohort, some of whom had previously been grouped tentatively with the Rilbrenated based on behaviour and age. They visit mainland and estates.
- The BOPs
The BOPs all(?) feature rather alien-looking avatars, and are run by a hobbyist using simple/outdated tools. They visit mainland and estates. The operator asked my permission to try to locate my avatar using the bots (I said that was fine), but the group doesn't seem to have well-defined goals.
The Saddlers appeared in mid January 2020 and (seemingly) went offline at the end of the month. They visit mainland and private regions, and are named because a few of their names reminded me of American Western movies. They might be a new group of Nonzies; I don't have enough data to say.
Guess what! This small group of bots all appear to have rezdays around the middle of 2015. Imaginative naming, I know. Several of them have library textures in their profiles. They visit mainland and private estates. I don't know what they do.
I've only seen two bots in this group, and they're named as if they're part of a data project. No idea what that project might be. In August 2019, I was told by a third party that these bots are retired.
What Do Roaming Bots Do?
From the perspecitive of a Second Life user, a typical roaming bot "does" virtually nothing when it arrives. They're typically on a region for less than a minute: sometimes they teleport away in just a few seconds, although occasionally one might get "stuck" and stay on a region for some time. They don't rez objects, respond to chat, or interact with people or objects. They also don't (generally) have a significant impact on a sim: in fact, they're less of a burden than avatars operated by real people.
There's a persistent myth that some (or all) of the roaming bots are operated by Linden Lab to generate the inworld World Map. Not true: as of October 2019, Linden Lab confirmed that "at present" the World Map does not use any processes that would be visible to users inworld. So these bots are all operated by Second Life users.
My analysis to date strongly suggests most roaming bots seem to be monitoring land ownership. SurveyTeam is one example. This certainly includes current ownership of individual regions and parcels (whether owned by individuals or groups). Bots would be necessary for this task because Linden Lab provides no way for Second Life users to get land ownership information other than sending an avatar to a region. Regular revisits would be necessary because Second Life land can change and turn over very quickly.
Some operators of land-centered bots are almost certainly tracking land information over time and combining it with information culled from Second Life's land sale and rental listings (available via Search — ironically, bots are also the best way to access this search data). I have also found a statistical correlation between land sale and rental listings and visits from one of the major bot cohorts: listing a parcel for sale or rent increases the probability members of that cohort will show up on the region more often.
Why go to this trouble? Because this information makes it possible to paint a picture of SL's land business and its major players. Let's remember: there's real money in SL land. Though the heady days of 2006 and 2007 are long gone, SL land is one of the only Second Life businesses that's been successful over time.
A few bots are associated with specific Second Life products (like Triple Labs' Explorer HUD) and others may be used by long-standing services like Tyche Shepherd's GridSurvey. A few others patrol public roads and waterways (likely mapping and/or checking for barriers to passage like overhanging builds or banlines). At least one group is run by a hobbyist just fiddling around for fun.
One bot operator has claimed to collect avatar names from estate and parcel whitelists/blacklists, as well as map individuals' group relationships between communities. I haven't yet identified those bots or substantiated that claim.
My own bot (Loubottin) collects (fully anonymous) statistical info about avatars.
Are Bots Stalking Me?
I've been asked many times if someone could use a group of bots to move around the grid to locate and track Second Life users in near-real time. Yes, it's technically possible, but (very, very) unlikely. Besides being a violation of Second Life Terms of Service, tracking people around the grid effectively would require a very large bot cohort. I would certainly notice them, and so would Linden Lab governance. None of the cohorts I'm tracking come close. In fact, the total number of grid-roaming bots I track doesn't come close.
And, frankly, someone with the technical skills to run a bot cohort can think of better ways to track Second Life users.
What about metadata? Could a group of bots teleporting around the grid eventually build up a database of locations where particular avatars have been seen and generate a graph of potential connections between them? Yes: that's possible within some limits. First, grid-roaming bots can't go everywhere: bots get banned all the time, and there are lot of private/restricted regions (like Skill Gaming areas) where bots simply cannot go. Second, unlike beacons used by Internet companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google that automatically track people all around the Internet (often without users realising it), bots actually have to get in the same region as avatars. Second Life isn't really very large (24,000 regions or so), but most people spend only limited time online. The potential data available to a group of bots is always going to be piecemeal and incomplete. But yes: over time, a group of bots could build up activity and association profiles of avatars accessible to them.
How do I collect these data? You know those "visitor count" scripts you see everywhere? "You're visitor 56 to my awesome store!" Basically, I'm doing the same thing except I'm only counting avatars I'm pretty sure are bots. Clients and friends have been good enough to let me scatter my little bot detectors across a selection of mainland and private regions. The number has generally been increasing as I cast a wider net, but fluctuates up and down — that's why the "sightings" number isn't a good indicator of a cohorts' activity in a month: I'm probably just clocking the same bots more often. The cohort totals are a better activity indicator.
So how do I decide what avatars are probably bots? A few ways, but primarily I have to see them myself, or they have to land in a little "bot trap." Bot traps are private parcels (not a store or anything with public traffic) with one of my detectors that has its landing point set to a weird spot. Members of the group that own the parcel can TP anywhere they like, but bots have to land on the landing point. Occasionally a real person stumbles in, but its really unlikely someone is going to hit three or four of those "bot traps." As the total goes up, so does the probability I'll mark that avatar down as a bot. If that avatar then starts turning up all sorts of places…well, then I'm pretty darn sure. If not, it drops off the might-be-a-bot list automatically.
And, of course, on my own parcels that landing point is right above the place where I sit to work on scripts. That's how bots land on my head. I just do that because I think it's funny.
Kinds of Bots
Bots aren't inherently evil: they mainly to do things avatars can do that inworld scripts and objects cannot. Linden Lab explicitly permits bots so long as they don't violate SL's terms of service or a few other conditions. Here are some common types of bots:
- Group Bots: Typically handle inviting people to groups, managing group notices, and even policing groups, like kicking out people for spamming or bad language. Ever go to a store and some stranger immediately asks you to join a group? Probably a group bot! These often track group statistics (membership numbers, etc.) for their owners. These bots usually stay in one place—until a region restart, when they tend to accumulate at SL infohubs for a while.
- Land Management Some private estates leave bots logged in 24/7, and use them to perform estate management tasks from the Web (even from just a phone) without having to log in. Mainly this is managing ban lists or ejecting troublemakers, but also things like restarting regions or resetting parcels when a tenant leaves or defaults on rental payments. One bot can manage a ton of regions, so these might move around a bit.
- Models/Support/Greeters These bots typically stay in one location and model clothing items (sometimes customers can change their outfits using scripts), answer questions from customers, or act as greeters. Ever had someone message you the second you step onto a parcel? "Hi, can I help you find some land today?" "Welcome to MedievalSpaceCowboys, the Dark Ages scifi western roleplay sim! Please grab a copy of the rules to your right! I can try to answer any questions!" Probably a greeter bot!
- NPCs NPCs ("non-player characters") are bot avatars that can move around, use vehicles, even fire weapons and take other actions. They're typically limited to a single parcel, region, or estate. Sometimes they simulate townsfolk just going about their daily business; sometimes they're part of a zombie horde; sometimes they perform the "adult" activities for which Second Life is so well-known worldwide. Expect some of these to go away in favour of animesh.
- Bankers Some people use bots as "bankers" to send and receive Linden dollars. I've had one client use a bot to pay out "wages" to players in their roleplay group (and accept payments for roleplay purchases); I've had another use a banking avatar to manage customer payments and refunds for land rentals.
- Game Bots Some inworld games have structures that encourage users to expand their groups/kingdoms/clans/whatever through recruiting new players. Except that recruiting new people can be hard and time-consuming, whereas creating new Second Life accounts is free and quick. So some players create a bunch of additional accounts to improve their standings and bring them online in hordes using small, lightweight SL clients like Metabolt. Game bots don't tend to get around much, but some games—particularly Tiny Empires—are well-known for players bringing troupes of avatars en masse to mainland sims and public spaces, sometimes even blocking access to the region for anyone but their personal coffee klatches. Some people play these games legitimately! Others, very clearly, do not.
- Roaming bots These move around the Second Life grid constantly, appearing at seemingly random times. Some have known purposes; others…no idea.
Many SL residents fear bots because they associate the term with "copybots," software (usually a modified version of the Firestorm viewer) designed to steal Second Life content. Copybots violate SL's terms of service…plus actual laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the European Copyright Directive, etc. The vast majority of SL bots aren't copybots—in fact, it's unlikely that any of the bots types mentioned above are copybots because it would be tremendously inefficient. Copybot operators mainly want to quickly copy popular things that the users can quickly re-upload to Second Life to turn a quick buck. Emphasis on quick. Hence, copybot viewers are almost always driven by humans who are familiar with SL.
Unscrupulous SL users sometimes create bots that pop into region (usually high-traffic regions) to spam users with group invitations, objects, phishing URLs, or other crap. File an abuse report if you encounter (or are contacted by) one of these.
I Want to Ban All Bots from My Land! Publish a List!!
I will not hesitate publish the names of roaming bots I can confirm to be harmful. I will also report any such to Linden Lab.
I will not publish a list of any other bots I've identified because lots of people will just reflexively ban them all, and that might well disrupt services and activities SL users actually want. For instance, a couple of the known bots do things like check out mainland roads and waterways looking for security scripts or banlines that interfere with public passage. (My bot does a little of that too.) That's tremendously useful to people who enjoy driving, boating, or flying around SL. Similarly, things like GridSurvey have been providing useful services for years that aren't available from Linden Lab. The simple fact that I don't know what a particular bot might be doing does not mean it's doing anything damaging or disruptive: it just means I don't know.
If I catch a bot doing bad things, believe me: everyone will hear about it.