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Spies in Second Life

February 07, 2008

The feds are getting antsy about Second Life, and it has nothing to do with flying phalli. A recent paper by the government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group foresees virtual worlds becoming the perfect setting for espionage planning, money laundering, and other clandestine activities. Writes the paper's author: "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."

The Washington Post reports that government officials are worried that the operators of virtual worlds "do not keep records of communication among avatars" and "have almost no way of monitoring the creation and use of virtual buildings and training centers, some of them protected by nearly unbreakable passwords." (Subtext: monitoring people elsewhere on the web is pretty easy.) Intelligence officials also bemoan the fact that, because the denizens of virtual worlds lack real identities, it's impossible to tell a good avatar from a bad avatar.

"The challenge that we face," writes the author of the IARPA paper, "is to be able to distinguish the fanatics from the average person looking for some simple enjoyment."

Dude, welcome to the internet.

The CIA already operates some private islands in Second Life, which it uses for training and meetings, but there are now plans for broader activity, suggests the Post: "National security officials have begun working informally to take stock of virtual worlds. That research likely will take on more urgency this year, as companies in other countries prepare to unveil their own virtual worlds."

Beyond figuring out how to spy on avatars, the government is also preparing to wage actual battles in virtual worlds. Writes the Post: "The intelligence community has begun contemplating how to use Second Life and other such communities as platforms for cyber weapons that could be used against terrorists or enemies, intelligence officials said. One analyst suggested beginning tests with teams of cyber warfare experts."

This strikes me as the perfect job for Rocky and Bullwinkle. After all, they had no problem thwarting the evil schemes of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.

Comments

I don't think targeting any specific social network or communication channel will not stop cyber terrorists. What we need is large scale policing of the internet.

Posted by: Niyaz PK [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 02:43 AM

Oops....
Mistake: I meant-
I don't think targeting any specific social network or communication channel will stop cyber terrorists.

Posted by: Niyaz PK [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 02:45 AM

"The challenge that we face," writes the author of the IARPA paper, "is to be able to distinguish the fanatics from the average person looking for some simple enjoyment."

What a prick. Just highlights how simple and reactionary the establishment can be - you're either a docile, leisure-seeking consumer, or a fanatic.

Posted by: Philippe Bradley [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 05:34 AM

It's all about control. Our present government wants to control every aspect of our lives... for our security, of course.

And people like Niyaz PK are just the kind of sheep... I mean, good citizens who applaud such efforts.

Posted by: Pat [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 08:12 AM

Yes Philippe, Sadly though it’s the insidious creep of those who have lost touch.

I am a good guy, pay my taxes, so why not be searched and spied on, that is for the bad guys, right?

"What additional things are possible in the virtual world that cannot be done in the real world?”

Isn’t that why it’s called virtual, being such in effect, though not in fact, but equivalent, so far as effect is concerned?

The [intelligence community] needs to 'red team' some possible scenarios of use."

“Red Team,” isn’t that code for the emblem on the flag of the Soviet Union?

Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 09:34 AM

Rocky: Hey Bullwinkle, we're in real trouble now!
Bullwinkle: Oh good, Rocky! I hate that artificial kind!

Boris: Aw, shut up your mouth!

Bullwinkle: Well, if you can't believe what you read in a comic book, what can you believe?

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 10:00 AM

The [intelligence community] needs to 'red team' some possible scenarios of use."

“Red Team,” isn’t that code for the emblem on the flag of the Soviet Union?

No. "Red Team" is a term of art in war gaming and similar simulation exercises. Planners play a game to anticipate how various scenarios might unfold. In most places, the Blue players play the role of friendly forces, the Red players enemy forces.

You made me curious whether or not "Red" was chosen because of the Soviet flag. This seems rather unlikely. For example, a footnote in "Winning the Next War: Innovation and Modern Military" contains a footnote to an exercise report from the US Naval College, class of 1925, using the phrase "Blue-Red Tactical Exercise" in the title. There was a Red (in the sense of Soviet) navy at that time which, per Wikipedia at least, was not much of a concern for the U.S. That the colors were used so casually in the title suggests that the traditional colors go back even farther than that.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 11:09 AM

IARPA Spook:

>> "The challenge that we face is to be able to
>> distinguish the fanatics from the average
>> person looking for some simple enjoyment."

Is there any real proof that Bin Laden or any of the US educated Al Qaeda terrorists are spending time in virtual worlds? Sure, putting some spooks in Linden Labs might catch some quasi dangerous types. But, are the guys plotting the next big terrorist attack stupid enough to use Second Life or any electronic channels at all? Is there any proof that email, chat or virtual worlds played ANY major part in the planning of 911 attacks? These guys use centuries old networks based on handshakes and word of mouth not cell phones and computers!

It's not that more scrutiny of SL is a necessarily a bad thing. However, my fear is that this report is illustrative of a backward trend toward the type of compliancy that led to the 911 attacks: that monitoring electronic communications alone is a substitute for traditional intelligence operations or citizen vigilance.

OK, Mr. Spook. Sip your coffee, eat your doughnuts and play around in SL. But, please, if someone ever calls you and tells you that a visa student in flight school from a terrorist nation “wants to learn to fly a plane but not land it,” please pull the NSA commissary doughnut from your mouth, put down the Xbox or Playstation controller and look into it!

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 12:06 PM

Thanks Tom, the comment was very much tongue in cheek. I checked Wikipedia but thought I could stretch the red team comment to, we are moving in the direction of a police state. Apparently not stretchy enough ;-)
Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 12:23 PM

Me and a friend of mine have an on going argument on Second Life: he says it's just an inflated bubble, a worthless internet trend that got hyped up because old-media got excited by it (this is how they imagine the future), while I say that nevertheless, the activity that goes on within it proves it certainly isn't a bubble. And so it goes on and on. I wonder if by showing him even the feds are moving in, I can convince him this isn't a bubble.

Posted by: jellydonot [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 7, 2008 12:27 PM

I'm very skeptical of this story. It's too typical of the oh-my-god-THE-FEDS plus cool tech genre.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 8, 2008 12:07 AM

Alan

I half-figured that but wasn't sure and, anyway, I really did get curious and it took more than Wikipedia to find the 1925 usage example so I didn't want to let that go to waste :-)

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 8, 2008 05:51 PM

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