US Seeks Virtual Environment Based Car Bombers
The predictably over-paranoid US government has begun to take its spy networks into cyberspace, targeting virtual environments for terrorist-like activity.
Project codename Reynard aims to recognise "normal" behaviour in online worlds and home in on "anomalous" activity.
In other words, anyone behaving other than how the US Gov't thinks people should behave in 3D virtual environments is a potential terrorist, and subject to investigation as such.
An immediate problem this flags up is those communities who don't behave in a 'normal' fashion relative to the mainstream. They behave normally to their own communities of course, but is this going to be enough to save them from having their personal details sifted by Reynard?
Is every member of a furdom community, for example, suddenly going to become a suspect with intelligence gathering on them going into overdrive, because they like to visualise themselves as furry animal anthropomorphic beings? Is this far enough into the 'anomalous' to trigger, despite this community itself being around a hundred thousand strong?
Another commonly known niche lifestyle to illustrate the point, is gor. This is a world where men rule, women submit (mostly) and technology is all but outlawed. Harsh and unforgiving, there are still an estimated 25,000 people of both genders who crave the reality this lifestyle brings. Intolerable to many of those outside it, due to its utterly alien nature, in contrast to modern mainstream society, it actually has less than its fair share of malcontents. However, is it possible to define a society more 'anomalous' to mainstream? Once again, does Reynard hone in on these people, and dig up personal data, storing them on potential terrorist databases for years, purely because their behaviour in VR environments is different?
The Hunt Begins
Whilst details leaking from the US Intelligence service are still thin at best, the project is developing tools tools and techniques for intelligence officers who are hunting terrorists and terror groups who operate from within virtual worlds, as opposed to the net at large.
Brief details about Reynard came to light in a report sent to the US Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) - which co-ordinates the work of US intelligence agencies.
In that report, which talked about the data mining efforts undertaken by the ODNI, Reynard was described as: "a seedling effort to study the emerging phenomenon of social (particularly terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the intelligence community".
Using publicly available data Reynard researchers will carry out observational studies to establish "baseline normative behaviours".
Once these are identified, Reynard will "then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behaviour and actions in the virtual world".
Thankfully this is where it falls down, as automatic detection of human intent is near impossible at this time with the vaguarities of the mind. Its hard enough in the physical world to predict what a complete stranger will do next, and their motivations - that is with the visual intent clues of body language and context. Yet, this is not stopping the attempt. Perhaps a noble goal, it would seem to be something of a wasted effort at the moment, as it would be much easier for terror groups to use a forum - which this project does not target - than to use a virtual environment in this way.
A senior intelligence officer at the ODNI said Reynard was in its very early stages and it was too soon to say which online worlds it would be studying. He added that any work on it [for now] would be purely for research rather than "operational" purposes.
"That's a very sensible step at the moment," said Roderick Jones, a vice president of Concentric Solutions and a former special branch officer. "Just to feel their way around them and work out what new intelligence collection methods might be required to deal with this threat, because you won't be able to use traditional law enforcement methods."
"I think its highly unlikely terrorists would use things like Second Life or World of Warcraft as they do not have the necessary security," said Mr Jones.
"Terrorist use of the internet at the moment relies on password protected forums," he added.
Other sources feel that VR is where the next terrorist training grounds will be, with dedicated worlds, utilising the power of the virtual environments for training - this is actually quite feasible, and much more likely than a terrorist organisation operating within a VR environment with a quite different purpose.
"It's a positive step," said Andrew Cochran, founder and co-chairman of the Counter terrorism Foundation. "For a number of years we were behind in chasing jihadists' presence on the net and detecting it.
"All of the major terrorist treatises have been distributed through the internet so taking it to a virtual world with multi-player role games is really an easy step."
It was inevitable that terror groups would make greater use of the internet and the possibilities that virtual spaces offered them, said Mr Jones.
"There's more a chance of things like Jihad worlds coming online in the next five years I think," he said. "The visual richness of virtual worlds make them good places to educate recruits about techniques."
"We can see groups emerging in cyber spaces and virtual communities that would be wholly virtual," he said. "They would organise and radicalise in virtual worlds and attack using cyber methods without becoming a real world presence in any real way."