Last week I briefly noted a feature Washington Post story, "Spies' Battleground Turns Virtual", because it confirmed the existence of private Second Life islands owned by the CIA. I missed some of the article's more inflammatory language, but Cory Ondrejka didn't. On his blog, he offers some pointed rejoinders that deflate its thesis-- though in my view, leaves some larger questions open.
This passage from the Post rankled Cory most:
[Virtual words are] offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit,
rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare
or worse with impunity.
As the Lindens' last Chief Technology Officer, and before that, a Navy officer who subsequently worked in classified weapons technology, Cory's in a unique place to pour some cool skepticism on the matter. To bolster his claim, Post journalist Robert O'Harrow Jr. cites a white paper by the intimidatingly acronym-ed US government body, IARPA, which immediately sets off Cory's detector. "[W]hile I have briefed experts from many three letter agencies," he explains, "I have not spoken to anyone from IARPA, which is a little surprising..." Indeed, that's like writing a white paper about security in the al-Anbar province without contacting General Petraeus.
To the passage's specific claims, Cory has two objections:
While criminals may be able to launder money through Second Life, he notes, the cash will still need to pass through real world financial bodies, which are subject to government oversight. And while terrorists may be able to recruit and train in a virtual world like Second Life, that misses the counter-terrorist potential of Second Life, as a training/recruitment resource for authorities, and perhaps even more interestingly, as a place that provides "alternate narratives" to jihadist ideology. (If I read him right, he means it's a place for peaceful interaction between cultures and peoples that can undermine the appeal of anti-Western extremism.)
This sounds right, though I think it leaves some unanswered questions: while it's true that there's no advantage or easy means to launder large amounts of cash through SL, as the world is currently architected, it still seems quite possible to do so with petty cash of a few hundred dollars, in a way that it'd be very difficult for authorities to track. Especially using multiple alt accounts, or perhaps even with bots created through open source versions of Second Life. At minimum, Second Life adds another layer of secrecy and evasion.
As to offering counter-jihadist narratives, while it's definitely true that SL has shown utility in improving international relations among general users, I think it's a different question what it'll do for users already predisposed toward Islamist extremism. If anything, a libertarian/libertine environment like Second Life might affirm and strengthen their beliefs against Western society. Some of the 9/11 hijackers famously went to a strip club the night before their attacks, while Sayyid Qutb, generally recognized as the intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda, formed his viciously anti-American beliefs after taking deep offense at seeing men and women dance together in a church basement in that decadent hotbed of sexual perversity, Greeley, Colorado in the 40s. (What would Qutb's successors make of poseballs and blingtards?)
Back to you, Flying Spaghetti Monster.