Thursday, February 07, 2008

washington post hiding under virtual desk

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a piece about terrorism and virtual worlds, "Spies' Battleground Turns Virtual." For those who might not know a lot about the space, the Post set a calm, measured tone with the subtitle "Intelligence Officials See 3-D Online Worlds as Havens for Criminals." The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity -- I love when committees name things -- released a report about virtual worlds and their purported threats. Unfortunately, I can't find a link to the report online, so I can only comment via the game of telephone. Moreover, while I have briefed experts from many three letter agencies, I have not spoken to anyone from IARPA, which is a little surprising and does make we wonder how much research they've really done. So, what does the report say?

Unfortunately, what started out as a benign environment where people would congregate to share information or explore fantasy worlds is now offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit, rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare or worse with impunity.
Wow, this does sound scary. But how valid is it? First of all, let's talk about the money. Linden's Ken Dreifach is quoted in the story, but beyond what he says, let's think about the money issue for just a moment. In order for real world currency to change hands via a virtual world, the real world currency has to change hands. I know, this does seem confusing, but consider the distinction between the Linden Dollar, L$, Second Life's in-world currency and the US$. L$ can be passed between players within SL, but in order for them to escape SL they have to be exchanged for something of value in the real world. Doing that requires one of the following events to happen:
  • People to coordinate a meeting via SL to meet in the real world in order to exchange suitcases full of cash
  • Coordinate in SL to use wire funds between banks
  • Use one of the many L$:US$ exchanges using Pay Pal or credit cards to pay for L$, and then either Pay Pal or wire transfers to disperse the US$ proceeds
Notice anything? In all of these cases, banks or credit card companies get involved. Guess what? Ever since organized crime first started trying to launder money, banks have had to comply with government regulations on transactions, especially large cash transactions. There is no "money transfer with impunity" and asserting there is demonstrates a lack of understanding of the underlying technologies and capabilities.

This is important, because much like previous information and communications technology upheavals, there strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats inherent to virtual worlds that the intel community needs to understand. Poorly researched, headline grabbing reports do not advance their understanding or capabilities. As Jim Dempsey from the Center for Democracy and Technology points out, we have been here before. As a society, we have historical precedent for balancing the economic and social benefits of freedom against the potential harms.

What about the rest of the paragraph? Certainly there plenty of examples of games being used for recruitment and propaganda for extremist groups, both Islamic and Christian. But, if you are going to study how virtual worlds change the dangers and options, you had better understand how attempting to create a training scenario is Second Life is different from building it in the Unreal Engine or leveraging Google Maps. Or, for that matter, through images shared on Flickr and coordinated via one time pads and cell phones. The differences have tremendous implications for both traffic analysis and cryptanalysis.

Think about recruiting. Virtual worlds certainly have different affordances around recruiting than other media. The implications on trust and relationships of embodiment and place are receiving the research the deserve. However, leaping to the conclusion that virtual worlds are therefore perfect recruiting platforms misses the chance of using them to spread the alternate narratives so missing from Jihadist culture. Misses the thought of using them as better platforms for training the analysts and experts. Skips the resource of the thousands of native speakers of Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and other languages currently within SL.

Do intelligence agencies need to use virtual worlds and understand them? Absolutely. But they will only gain understanding by actually learning about virtual worlds. That will take significant time and effort, but there are many of us willing to help.

1 comment:

dyerbrookME said...

You (and the feds) are missing the point that literal organizing of terrorist acts, with plans, exchange of technical information, money transfer, etc. is only part of what makes up extremist movements.

SL might be a very poor interface for doing literal planning of terrorist acts -- it's leaky, as both Lindens and residents can eavesdrop on your conversations; it's crashy, and you might not make a meeting on time or at all; you might have to postpone your plans because it's Wednesday and patch day or due to one of those long "rolling restarts".

As for money, as you must know, trying to transfer more than $10,000 rapidly (which the US requires more information for under the Patriot Act) is very, very hard in SL. There are delays and checks and stoppages. Transfers to PayPal take up to 5 days and if fraud or crime is suspected, transactions won't go through. Few people would bother transferring a few thousand over long periods of time -- they'd lose something on the transaction costs, for one. It's just not a viable platform for cash transfers of any meaningful amount at this time -- a terrorist might think -- why not just use Western Union or PayPal itself or cash?

But terrorism is part of extremist ideology, and extremist ideology thrives in SL. It has all the anonymity and unaccountability that cults thrive on. People are already able to be held for hours and days on end in cults like the Goreans without objecting or logging off, which they are free to do. People come to virtual worlds very lonely and needing connections and an organized plan to involve them and make them feel they have meaningful participation, and cults and extremists provide that.

The socializing aspects and the immersiveness are what Second Life offers to extremism far more than the ability to plan or even prototype a bomb and how it works. Second Life might be better for prototyping the combat against terrorism than the terrorism itself, which will depend on surprise, randomness, and sometimes even the perpetrator not knowing what will ensue from his act.

I don't see why governments can't have any less watch on a virtual world than they would on a telephone system to pursue criminals. But these issues are hotly contested, the government constantly engages in overreach, and technolibertarians constantly underplay the threat. Society has to find a balance between the pursuit of public threats and privacy.