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Extending the Discussion on Terrorism in a Virtual World

In a recent Commentary entitled Getting Serious about 'Virtual' Terror, my colleague Michael Tanji wrote about the threat associated with virtual environments like Second Life and Web 2.0. This is not the first time and will not be the last time that Mr. Tanji, a former DIA intelligence officer has lent his expertise to the analysis of this emerging trend (or is it a phenomena). His apt conclusion was:

Virtual worlds are a potential breeding ground for new threats, but as with any sufficiently technically advanced or inherently dangerous prospect, there are real hurdles to overcome. The greatest threat however is not that terrorists will achieve some quantum leap in capabilities by operating online; it is that so many are so quick to dismiss the seriousness of this issue thanks to the hype perpetrated by the ill-informed. Death from the ‘Net may never become reality, but there will be no forgiveness if we allow even middling capabilities to develop – and eventually launch – from cyberspace unchecked.

I have often commented to my friends in the academic community that I am surprised that more extensive studies on the sociology of the Internet, how people can interact and co-exist with each other in the virtual world has affected life away from the computer. Frankly, I have a hard time accepting the opposing point of view that virtual relationships cannot become very real. On a very simplistic level, the interactions between so-called “citizen journalists” in the blogosphere is a perfect example where they collaborate and mix and blend ideas, collaborate and believe in a common objective. But more to the point of the emerging threat posed by virtual worlds like Second Life, I think the question of “why not” needs to be asked and answered. In a place like a virtual world, remotely located individuals can collaborate in nefarious efforts, or establish ground rules and parameters in which operational scenarios can be gamed. To reject that as even a possibility leaves open the likelihood that such activities will occur.

This is not theory. It is a reality. The earlier Commentary did not reference the release of a Declassified Report on Data Mining from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

This report, an action indicated by Section 804 of what is known as the Data Mining Reporting Act, summarizes the activities of the Office of Science and Technology’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) and its portfolio of research projects. It describes these research projects as “some of which include the exploration of techniques that could be applied to data mining,” but emphasizing that they “have not been deployed for use in any operational or other real life environments.”

Recognizing that the report is the declassified version, and yet, still digging a little more deeply, we learn that because of the challenges posed by the “exponential growth of information faced by the intelligence analysts, IARPA has created the Incisive Analysis portfolio (a grouping of research projects intended to meet the goals of establishing a culture of collaboration, fostering collection and analytic transformation and accelerating information sharing. Contained in this portfolio are elements such as:

● Knowledge Discovery and Dissemination (KDD) which seeks ways to coordinate access to and effectively exploit the range of legally-collected data sources gathered across the disparate agencies of the IC.

● The Tangram project with the purpose of evaluating the use and value of a terrorism threats surveillance and warning system. Components of Tangram include a “surveillance and warning” system to report the threat likelihood of known threat entities and to discover and report on the threats from unsuspected threat entities.

● The Video Analysis and Content Extraction project that hopes to automate the human intensive process of reviewing video content, seeking intelligence value using subject based queries and possibly also use pattern-based data mining techniques.

● The ProActive Intelligence project that is intended to study the dynamics of complex intelligence targets (including known terorrist origanizaitons) by watching for causal relationships that are indicative of nefarious activity.

And finally, we get to a program called Reynard that is discussed recent Wired story. Reynard is described as a “seedling effort looking at the emerging social dynamics of virtual worlds and on-line games, and their implications to the IC:

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.

If it shows early promise, this small seedling effort may increase its scope to a full project.

Reynard will conduct unclassified research in a public virtual world environment. The research will use publicly available data and will begin with observational studies to establish baseline normative behaviors.

I guess the point of this is that there are, and should be, very real concerns about the virtual world and its potential for use as a tool of terrorism Both Michael and I have covered the topic and related issues a few times before. Obviously, he and I come at this subject from a different perspective. His is as a former IC operative. I come at this subject looking at it with fascination as I watch new technologies become reality because of some involvement I've had in programs in data fusion and information brokering. I’m pretty confident that if we were watching things like this before September 11th that we might have actually seen some patterns emerging that could have given us an early warning of what was to come. While I’m sure that there will be more discussions on the topic as time passes, it is also pretty clear that the subject will remain controversial. Personally, I think that Salon article referenced in Michael’s commentary is a bit naïve.