Spies' Battleground Turns Virtual

A businessman avatar in Second Life, an online role-playing game. Intelligence officials caution that such games offer novel opportunities for terrorist and criminal activity.
A businessman avatar in Second Life, an online role-playing game. Intelligence officials caution that such games offer novel opportunities for terrorist and criminal activity. (Photo: Linden Research)

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By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

U.S. intelligence officials are cautioning that popular Internet services that enable computer users to adopt cartoon-like personas in three-dimensional online spaces also are creating security vulnerabilities by opening novel ways for terrorists and criminals to move money, organize and conduct corporate espionage.

Over the last few years, "virtual worlds" such as Second Life and other role-playing games have become home to millions of computer-generated personas known as avatars. By directing their avatars, people can take on alternate personalities, socialize, explore and earn and spend money across uncharted online landscapes.

Nascent economies have sprung to life in these 3-D worlds, complete with currency, banks and shopping malls. Corporations and government agencies have opened animated virtual offices, and a growing number of organizations hold meetings where avatars gather and converse in newly minted conference centers.

Intelligence officials who have examined these systems say they're convinced that the qualities that many computer users find so attractive about virtual worlds -- including anonymity, global access and the expanded ability to make financial transfers outside normal channels -- have turned them into seedbeds for transnational threats.

"The virtual world is the next great frontier and in some respects is still very much a Wild West environment," a recent paper by the government's new Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity said.

"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."

The government's growing concern seems likely to make virtual worlds the next battlefield in the struggle over the proper limits on the government's quest to improve security through data collection and analysis and the surveillance of commercial computer systems.

Virtual worlds could also become an actual battlefield. 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 so-called teams of cyber warfare experts.

The IARPA paper concurred: "What additional things are possible in the virtual world that cannot be done in the real world? The [intelligence community] needs to 'red team' some possible scenarios of use."

The CIA has created a few virtual islands for internal use, such as training and unclassified meetings, government officials said.

Some veterans of privacy debates said they believe that law enforcement and national security authorities are preparing to make a move, through coercion or new laws, to gain access to the giant computer servers where virtual worlds reside.

Jim Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonpartisan group that monitors privacy issues, said he heard the same worries from the government when cell phones became popular in the 1980s and again when mainstream American logged on to the Internet in the 1990s.


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