U.S. Intelligence Eyes Second Life

Robert O’Harrow, a Washington Post reporter who is very insightful and current in his coverage of data privacy (and author of a good book on it too), today chronicles the inevitable first stirrings of government fear about virtual worlds such as Second Life:

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 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.

O’Harrow quotes from a U.S. intelligence study that says something like: “All the kids today are dancing and ‘jiving’ to this new rock-and-roll music on their jukeboxes, leading to increased lascivious behavior and moral decay.”

Now, I understand the possible dangers inherent in a global digital network that facilitates anonymity and allows users to make financial transactions. But that system is called the internet. It isn’t clear to me why those portions of the internet taken up by Second Life are necessarily more threatening than somewhat more familiar problems such as encrypted e-mail or money-transfer systems like PayPal. These innovations can be used for crime. My guess is that the novelty of flying avatars and virtual buildings drives the government’s fear, rather than a significant increase in actual risk from Second Life over and above the internet as a whole.

Even conceding that Second Life could be an especially attractive haven for Bad Guys, the potential for an over-reaction is very high. After all, regular old telephones help criminals and terrorists to communicate too, but that does not necessarily justify routinely monitoring them on a massive scale. (As Jim Dempsey of CDT aptly notes, “When the government is finished, every new technology becomes a more powerful surveillance tool than the technology before it.”)

I certainly hope we won’t see a rush to install monitoring or data-mining in these environments, either as a legal requirement or — perhaps more likely — though the eager cooperation of their proprietors. In a somewhat ominous sign, O’Harrow reports that Linden Lab is already hurrying to reassure the spooks that there is plenty of monitoring already in place:

Officials from Linden Lab have initiated meetings with people in the intelligence community about virtual worlds. They try to stress that systems to monitor avatar activity and identify risky behavior are built into the technology, according to Ken Dreifach, Linden’s deputy general counsel.

Is Linden Lab headed down the well-trodden path, already taken by many airlines, phone companies, and search engines, of voluntarily handing over their customers’ information to the government’s data-mining machine? Let’s hope not.

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