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
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.