Roaming Bots in Second Life

Automated Avatars

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.

July 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
1729
29
1331
25
6638
15
308
15
(all others)
918
23
Totals:
11004
107
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 hope 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.
June 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
2509
42
848
29
(all others)
453
25
Totals:
5229
110
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.
May 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
280
28
1931
24
(all others)
454
12
Totals:
3917
78
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.
April 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
396
27
1642
24
(all others)
242
11
Totals:
3710
76
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.
March 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
632
31
760
24
(all others)
228
13
Totals:
1921
82
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.
February 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
1157
31
650
24
203
5
231
2
(all others)
143
7
Totals:
2488
82
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.
January 2019
Cohort
Sightings
# Bots
285
29
132
11
44
5
113
2
(all others)
100
7
Totals:
674
54
Initial figures begin to suggest different cohorts of grid-roaming bots.

Cohorts

What are those weird names? Here ya go:

Rilbrenats
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 in 22.5-degree increments, 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), so my guess is the rotation is an old-school arc-limited sensor (they're really old, remember!), perhaps looking for nearby avatars. But that is pure speculation: 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 date in August 2018, and appear to have rotated in a new set of bot avatars in June 2019. They visit both mainland and private estates. They tend to appear at altitude and free-fall to the ground. So named because they seem to prefer an initial altitude of 1001m unless they're drawn to a landing point. Most 1001s have blank profiles and carry two to three inworld scripts; many are full alpha (full transparent inworld); others are default avatars. I don't know their purpose.
SurveyTeam
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.
Mid2015s
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.
GDN
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.

Methodology

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 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 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. 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.
  • 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.

What Do Roaming Bots Do?

A typical roaming bot is 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.

With a few exceptions, I don't know what these bots do. One cohort (the "Rilbrenats") is quite old, so it might be a holdover from the "landrush" days of Second Life: perhaps they cruised around looking for mis-priced land and snapped it up, with the operator looking to sell it later at a profit. (But I doubt it because bot-aided purchase of mainland parcels has been prohibited for years…and these bots keep going.) A few are associated with specific Second Life products (like Triple Labs' Explorer HUD) and others are probably used by long-standing services like Tyche Shepherd's GridSurvey. Others groups are quite new, but they don't seem to be causing any harm to the regions they visit or anyone using them. My own bot (Loubottin) collects (fully anonymous) statistical info about avatars.

Within the 1001 cohort, individual bots seem to come and go: a particular bot might be pretty active for a couple weeks, disappear entirely for a while, then re-appear a few months later. With the Rilbrenats, most or all of the cohort seems to go offline at once, suggesting a centralised operation. I suspect this may be due to the fact that common scripted inworld security devices (like security orbs) can only add avatars to a ban list for up to six days. Yes, it's possible to program around this limitation (by periodically refreshing the list), but perhaps some bots are given a "rest" so they can fall off some automated ban lists around the grid. I don't know.

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.