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Agency explores feasibility of virtual worlds as terrorist havens

A report issued by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicates that the agency will investigate whether terrorists are using virtual worlds to gather and train.

Over at Wired today, the eagle-eyed Ryan Singel has a story about a new U.S. government initiative intended to root out terrorists working and playing in virtual worlds.

As Singel writes, the so-called Data Mining Report (click here for PDF) from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence includes information about "Reynard," a "seedling effort to study the emerging phenomenon of social (particularly terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the Intelligence Community."

The Data Mining Report continues, suggesting, "The cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied. Therefore, Reynard will seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral, and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world."

This leads me to several thoughts.

First, it is by no means a new theory that terrorists either might someday use, or perhaps already are using, virtual worlds to gather, train, look for love or whatever else might occur to them. Of course, it's only a theory. No one has yet proven anything untoward is happening or will happen.

That doesn't mean it can't happen, but to date there's been no proof.

Still, the possibility is certainly there, and it can't hurt to have the government spend a little time and money investigating techniques for rooting out any potential terrorist activity in environments like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty 4, Second Life, or elsewhere.

Secondly, I have to quibble with the report's assertion that "the cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied."

In 2003, I wrote my first story about the State of Play conference, a confab held at New York Law School that looked into, among other things, the cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds. Since then, there have been dozens of such conferences, symposiums, meetings, and gatherings to look into this exact subject. Just because no one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence chose to attend those meetings doesn't mean the discussions weren't happening.

Still, to my knowledge, there hasn't been any in-depth study about how to find and eradicate terrorists in virtual worlds, and there's been no doubt in my mind that such efforts would come along one day soon. And I bid the government the best of luck in finding such evil-doers, because who wouldn't?

But what's important is that virtual worlds not be painted with the brush of terrorism before there's any actual evidence that such activity is going on there.

So, I'd like to urge the people working on Reynard to tread carefully and be sure about what they're looking at. If they're not familiar with virtual worlds, they will certainly encounter behavior that is well outside the norm--and it could be tempting to categorize someone dressed as a jihadi as actually being one. Yet it may just be a 14-year-old from Dubuque having some (admittedly poorly expressed) fun with his or her friends.