US Spooks Worried 'Virtual Osama Bin Laden' Is A Real Threat

As signs of an al-Qaeda resurgence in Iraq grow stronger by the day, security analysts are engaged in a fierce debate over who’s to blame: President Obama, who failed to keep troops in the region past 2011? Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose repeated crackdowns on the Sunni minority have inflamed simmering tensions?

How about an Osama bin Laden avatar?

While the idea of a virtual terrorist orchestrating the takeover of real cities may seem far fetched, according to newly declassified documents, it’s a scenario the NSA was extremely worried about in the summer of 2008.

Though the U.S. hadn’t had good intel on the whereabouts of bin Laden “in years,” agents feared that jihadists might create a detailed avatar of Osama bin Laden whose “fidelity of his likeness” was so believable that it could “preach and issue new fatwas for hundreds of years to come.”

The 126-page report — commissioned by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in July 2008 and released Wednesday under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Federation of American scientists — provides a tantalising glimpse into an agency whose rapacious quest for data led it and its UK sister agency GCHQ to infiltrate online gaming communities and conduct extensive surveillance on digital players, according to secret documents disclosed by Edward Snowden last month.

A joint analysis of the Snowden documents by The New York Times and ProPublica emphasises the spy agencies’ concern that “terrorist groups might take to the virtual worlds to establish safe communications channels,” which led to the vast collection of users’ “chat, instant message and financial transaction data” over the course of several years.

But the ODNI study — “3D Cybersapce Spillover: Where Virtual Worlds Get Real” — suggests that the NSA’s preoccupation with virtual games like Second Life and World of Warcraft extended beyond the collection of SIGINT, or signals intelligence. With sections such as “The Fractured Identity” and “Foundation for Governance in Virtual Worlds,” the report reveals a strong fascination with the potential of virtual worlds to influence large numbers of users and spread ideologies across national borders undetected.

Virtual worlds are compelling, exciting places in which to participate, and social norms within them are still emerging. This makes them the perfect place for subtle propaganda and raises the question of what happens when other cultures create their own worlds and spread their worldviews.

… The primary concern from an influence perspective is the prospect of political or ideological objectives hidden in game rule sets or play mechanics, where their effect can be less obvious. Just as cinematic spectacles enrapture audiences, game play captures the minds of users. Thus “games can communicate doctrine by demonstration.”

Among the potential doctrination threats listed in the ODNI study are a “Chinese MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) that pushes anti-Western sentiments,” and “a hostile foreign MMORPG that trains alienated Western teenagers to commit acts of terrorism.”

For those unfamiliar with the constructs of online gaming, this notion of an ungovernable space where communication goes undetected and avatars readily adopt the behaviours of other avatars might indeed sound like a plausible haven for terrorist recruitment and organisation.

But to Second Life expert Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, the NSA’s fear that avatars can influence ideologies is “utter nonsense” and “constitutes unhinged paranoia.”

“An avatar in [an online] world is no more persuasive than a film clip or text — indeed it is less so because you are looking at a cartoon,” he wrote in an email. “What this episode tells us is that the NSA is so deep into its paranoia that it has lost touch with reality.”

That view is seemingly shared by the ProPublica/New York Times report, which notes that for all the intelligence agencies’ enthusiasm, “[T]he documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort.”

Furthermore, “former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.” That’s because games like Second Life are notoriously poor places for private conversation, according to Ludlow.

“No one in their right mind communicates about anything sensitive using in-game communication channels. Griefers (users who harass other users, a violation of Second Life’s terms of service) drop out of game and use independent chat programs. Eavesdropping on third parties is also trivial,” he says.

“Everyone in Second Life knows this.”

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