Friday, February 8, 2008

Second Life as Terrorist Training Ground

The Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow deserves kudos for revealing the U.S. intelligence commmunity's rising hysteria about Second Life. Goodness knows, agita has been building for some time now about possible underground activities and money laundering by evil doers in synthetic worlds.

O'Harrow's story grew out of a new report from IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the spy version of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Of Second Life, the report says: "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."

That may be, though later in the piece, O'Harrow cites an intelligence official, who said he had "no evidence of activity by terrorist cells or widespread organized crime in virtual worlds."

Ironically, the most widely known incidences of "violence" in Second Life have not been the work of jihadis or other terrorists, but of far right vigilante groups and anarchists. Best known is the Front National, a right-wing French group led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the first European political party to open shop in Second Life. On Jan. 20, 2007, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the opening of the Front's headquarters occasioned protests, explosions, gunfire and the hurling of exploding pigs. Le Pen and other Front members have been convicted of inciting racial violence in France.

Of course, where rightists roam, can anarchists be slow to follow? Yes, it's true, Second Life also has a Second Life Liberation Army.

Free speech and virtual worlds commentators jumped all over IARPA's interest in synthetic worlds and massively multiplayer online games, suggesting it would lead to illegal surveillance and abrogation of civil rights.

O'Harrow warns that scrutiny of virtual worlds will intensify because other countries are creating them. He's especially concerned about a Chinese entrant that wants to enable avatars to move among worlds:

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.

One such world, called HiPiHi, is being created in China. HiPiHi founders said they want to create ways for avatars to be able to travel freely between its virtual world, Second Life and other systems -- a development that intelligence officials say make it doubly hard to track down the identity of avatars.

In promotional material, HiPiHi officials said that they believe that virtual worlds "are the next phase of the Internet."
Interestingly, HiPiHi counts among its partners a number of U.S. firms, including IBM and Intel. What's more, IBM shares the goal of linking online worlds and views them as the future of the Internet, too. IBM holds a good deal of space within Second Life and is building showrooms there for the likes of Sears, Circuit City, and other companies.

IBM also makes space available on its virtual islands to work on experimentations that push the limit of what might be possible in virtual worlds, with aims to begin the foundations for building out the next generation, 3-D Internet and to drive open standards. Its goal is to experiment with ways to replicate business processes in these worlds and apply variables to them to see what might happen in the real word, or to build new ways to educate people or treat certain types of maladies through innovative uses of technologies for e-learning and telemedicine.

O'Harrow quotes Jeff Jonas of IBM's Entity Analytics Solutions organization, which focuses on making data more easily and intelligently searchable by resolving identities and stripping inappropriate identifiers so it can be shared across organizations. It's a different arm of IBM from the virtual worlds folks and it's much involved with law enforcement and anti-terror data mining. In 2002, I wrote about Jonas and his early work helping casinos identify employee collusion with fraudsters in a story about the CIA's venture capital investments (Jonas got one).

Those who closely watch serious terrorists' activities don't believe they are likely to find Second Life congenial what with its exploding pigs and anarchists, and now, no doubt, roaming U.S. spy avatars. Instead, they advance other predictions for jihadis online, including that they will create or commission just-in-time virtual worlds spun up for specific training sessions and then just as quickly disassembed. How could worlds appear and disappear so fast? By using botnets--thousands of unrelated computers rendered zombies controlled by hackers with nefarious purposes--as temporary servers.

As the Music Man says: "Make your head spin? Well I should say!"


Shane Harris said...

I don't want to second guess IARPA's concerns, but let's remember a piece of the back story. They're a start-up group in their own right, and are fighting other R&D agencies in the intelligence community for funds and control of research direction. In the process, they're getting push back and, according to the scuttlebutt, not making a lot of friends. This paper, obviously leaked to a good reporter who understands technology, sounds like an attempt by IARPA to put itself on the board with a high-profile, sexy problem.

I also smiled at the Jim Dempsey quote. "They want to control this technology and make it even easier to tap than it already is," Dempsey said. "When the government is finished, every new technology becomes a more powerful surveillance tool than the technology before it." Jim has a lot of history with the government's attempts to assert itself into new, emerging technologies. When the Internet was a nascent environment, the attorney general wanted to be able to set standards for technology development. (Think about that and how significant that was.) Jim was among the group, which included telecom companies, that fought back that effort. This IARPA paper is hardly of the level of the attorney general's power play more than a decade ago. But history repeats.

Anne Laurent said...

Sexy indeed, but a real problem? Methinks they doth protest too much. So much about the war on terrorism is about launching salvos at easy targets in order to give the appearance of action. It would be a shame if this sort of concern without evidence caused federal agencies to hold back from taking advantage of the robust and cost-effective possibilities offered by virtual worlds, though perhaps not public ones such as Second Life. I suspect, though, that the horses are too far out of the barn to turn back now. All this leak has accomplished is to make IARPA look a bit alarmist and Luddite.