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Canada seeks digital cops to catch digital thieves

As criminals increasingly hijack digital technologies, police in Canada are turning to an unusual candidate pool for crime fighters: the virtual world of Second Life.

”Policing has to reflect society, and as technology becomes more pervasive in society, we have to make sure that officers we hire are familiar with the technology,” said Inspector Kevin McQuiggin, head of the Vancouver police department’s technology crimes unit.

”Anyone we meet online, by virtue of being on Second Life, likely has an interest in cutting-edge technology or is comfortable with technology … and could make an excellent candidate,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Second Life, created by Linden Lab in 2003, is one of the most popular digital virtual worlds on the internet, with more than eight million users worldwide.

Hoping to attract technology-savvy candidates to their unit, the Vancouver cops created online personas or avatars with the help of local university students, and held their first recruiting session on Second Life in June.

A second session is planned by year-end, said McQuiggin, whose team is responsible for computer forensics, investigating harassment by SMSs, child porn cases, financial crime, decrypting cellphone calls of organised crime rings and so on.

Last year, the unit was involved in 18 out of 19 homicides in Vancouver on Canada’s Pacific Coast, scanning computers, cellphones and handheld e-mail devices.

In most ways, the Vancouver Police Department’s June online session mirrored a real-life recruiting session: explaining the force’s selection process, training and job opportunities, he said.

However, the veteran cops found themselves in a virtual world surrounded by 30 avatars with spiked hair, wings and mercenary accoutrements.

McQuiggin said recruiters should try to ignore some of the outlandish costumes worn in Second Life. One man reportedly attended another virtual job fair as a female avatar named Dragon while another appeared as a teddy bear.

”The interactivity in Second Life is really neat,” McQuiggin said. But the avatars can be tricky to manoeuvre. One job-seeker told the daily Globe and Mail he accidentally presented a recruiter with a beer online, instead of a résumé.

And unintentionally sending your avatar hurtling into a wall could spoil that crucial first impression. Of course, with the virtual environment being new to employers too, most are understanding of such gaffes.

According to reports, a growing number of organisations are turning to virtual online communities to find employees for real-life positions, because of their global reach.

In May, TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications held its first virtual job fair, attracting hundreds of applicants.

Hewlett-Packard, Verizon and Microsoft are also purportedly experimenting with online hiring.

After its first virtual session, the Vancouver Police Department received three applications from Second Life users, including one from Italy, McQuiggin said.

”He had planned to vacation in Canada and decided he’d like to meet with us next week,” he said.

Candidates must still be vetted and interviewed the old-fashioned way, he said.

”We weren’t looking to establish a police station or conduct investigations on Second Life,” McQuiggin said. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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