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Terror scholar: 'WoW' could let government sniff out plots

Some intelligence experts think terrorism in virtual worlds could provide a view of what real-world terrorists might be up to.

Over at Wired, David Thier has a story up about theories being propagated by terrorism and intelligence scholars that virtual worlds could provide counterterrorism agents with a view into the activities of real-world baddies.

The theorists posit that virtual terrorism and diseases spread in World of Warcraft might paint a picture of what terrorists like Osama bin Laden are thinking when they're hunkered down, planning their attacks on the U.S. or other countries.

"People got really smart about figuring out how to cause the most damage to the largest number of people," Wired quoted Robert Allen, a WoW player who created a bioterrorist attack in the game, as saying.

The article also quoted Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies Deputy Director Charles Blair as arguing that online games like WoW might give counterterrorism agents a view into how cells come together.

Last month the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicated that it's planning to study online games and "the emerging phenomenon of social (particularly terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the Intelligence Community."

Every few months, we hear about some theorist or academic who has determined that al-Qaida is using virtual worlds like WoW to plot disaster. And every time that happens, a bunch of government officials probably get very freaked out and think that maybe it's time to start running data mining projects in those environments, just like the Office of the DNI did.

But as I wrote last month and I will continue to write, just because someone theorizes it doesn't mean it's true.

It is true that scientists have studied how diseases spread in virtual worlds and the results have been fascinating, since virtual worlds present pretty sophisticated models of complex societies and how a virus might spread among large groups. But that just doesn't mean that orc you came across in EverQuest is a terrorist. Or is carrying a virtual virus.

For now, I think it's worth thinking about these things as problems. And it certainly makes for interesting reading. But what I'd like to see is people not get so freaked out about the dangers of virtual worlds since no one has proven that the environments have been used for any kind of real-world dastardly behavior.