In Box

Terrorists in Second Life

Last year, several bombs were detonated outside the retail stores of American Apparel and Reebok. No one knew who was behind the attacks until the perpetrators came forward — the Second Life Liberation Army. The attack, planned and executed inside Second Life, the popular online virtual world, prompted fears that terrorism from the real world ...

Last year, several bombs were detonated outside the retail stores of American Apparel and Reebok. No one knew who was behind the attacks until the perpetrators came forward — the Second Life Liberation Army. The attack, planned and executed inside Second Life, the popular online virtual world, prompted fears that terrorism from the real world was bleeding into the digital world.

In the case of this terrorist attack, the threat turned out to be purely virtual. In the parlance of online gamers, the group consisted of "griefers," or those who make life difficult for others. This particular outfit wanted Linden Lab, Second Life’s owners, to grant more rights to "avatars," or virtual characters.

But the danger of terrorist groups’ lurking in the virtual world is not pure imagination. Interpol, the body responsible for international police cooperation, says that it has detected suspicious activity inside massively multiplayer online role-playing games. "Online games now have their own foreign exchange, which lets players buy and sell different virtual currencies, just as in the real world," the agency says. "Criminals will undoubtedly take advantage of this." One such incident occurred in 2006 when Sony Online Entertainment became concerned with a player in Europe who was moving large amounts of money through one of its online games. The player was found and admitted to laundering funds between the United States and Russia.

Sean Kane, an attorney and an expert on virtual-world legal affairs, says the real threat may not be that violence spills from the real world to the virtual, but rather the other way around. "The more complex a virtual world becomes, the more it could be used for training purposes," says Kane. For instance, terrorist organizations could rehearse tactics or spread propaganda and messages using the communications channels of virtual worlds. Or they might avail themselves of virtual-world currencies, such as Second Life’s "Linden Dollar."

Linden Lab and other firms say there is no reason for concern. Michael Wilson, the CEO of Makena Technologies, which owns the 1-million-player strong virtual world There.com, states flatly that "there are no terrorists" in his company’s game. But loose-knit terrorist organizations have continually proven to be adept at finding creative ways to communicate and move funds. That could mean that the next online terrorist attack is more a matter of when, not if.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola