Assessing the Intelligence Implications of Virtual Worlds

01.08.14 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Digitally-based virtual worlds and online games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft represent a qualitatively new phenomenon that could have profound impacts on culture, politics and national security, according to a newly disclosed report  (large pdf) prepared in 2008 for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“This technology has the potential to be an agent for transformational change in our society, our economy, and our efforts to safeguard the homeland,” the report stated. “If virtual world technology enters the mainstream, criminals and US adversaries will find a way to exploit this technology for illegal and errant behavior.”

The study was conducted as part of the 2008 ODNI SHARP (Summer Hard Problem) program and was just released under the Freedom of Information Act in redacted (and partially illegible) form. Though sponsored by ODNI, it was prepared by a mix of governmental and non-governmental authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. intelligence community. See “3D Cyberspace Spillover: Where Virtual Worlds Get Real,” July 2008.

Around the same time (2007-2009), U.S. intelligence personnel were actually exploring online games and gathering information on their users, according to classified documents released by Edward Snowden and reported in the New York Times last month.  See “Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games” by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, New York Times, December 9, 2013.

The authors of the ODNI-sponsored report acknowledged that the empirical basis for their inquiry was thin.

“Much of the information in the public domain about the alleged terrorist exploitation of virtual worlds has been speculative rather than based upon substantive evidence. Although there is reliable information available concerning extremist and terrorist exploitation of the internet, for example Web 1.0, the same cannot be said of virtual world or Web 2.0.”

“As of this report, there is little evidence that militant Islamist and jihadist groups have begun extensively exploiting the opportunities presented by virtual worlds.”

“However, given that the more sophisticated groups of this type, including al-Qa’ida, have exploited the internet in very refined ways, they will likely soon seek to exploit newer virtual world technologies for recruiting, raising and transferring funds, training new recruits, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and planning attacks by using virtual representations of prospective targets.”

Fancifully, the authors envision the creation of a virtual Usama bin Ladin carrying out his mission for centuries to come.

“Imagine that jihadist supporters create a detailed avatar of Usama bin Ladin and use his many voice recordings to animate the avatar for up-close virtual reality experiences that could be used to preach, convert, recruit, and propagate dogma to the media.”

“The Bin Ladin avatar could preach and issue new fatwas for hundreds of years to come, as the fidelity of his likeness would be entirely believable and animated in new ways to keep him current and fresh.” (p. 72)

The report includes various incidental observations of interest. It notes, for example, that “In many ways, South Korea is the world leader in adopting new technologies” including online games.

But it also reaches far afield, including references to Barbie Girls (“a quickly growing virtual world,” though now closed) and Club Penguin (“over 12 million active users,” now over 200 million, but most of whom are probably under ten years old) (p. 82).

“The growing number of global users, in conjunction with ongoing technological changes, will likely increase the difficulty that the Intelligence Community (IC) will encounter in its efforts to monitor the virtual realm,” said the study, which was classified at the Confidential level. “Accordingly, outreach programs that enlist users as educated observers and reporters will be required to survey current and emerging systems more effectively.”