Why Cory Ondrejka (Probably) Told the NSA of Second Life: To Prepare It for Mainstream Acceptance as the 3D Web
Among the many revelations around the news that the NSA had a surveillance program in Second Life, this item in particular has caused a lot of concern, and (in my view), unnecessary alarm:
In 2007, as the N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies were beginning to explore virtual games, N.S.A. officials met with the chief technology officer for the manufacturer of Second Life, the San Francisco-based Linden Lab. The executive, Cory Ondrejka, was a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance. He visited the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members over a brown bag lunch, according to an internal agency announcement. “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!” said the announcement. It added that virtual worlds gave the government the opportunity “to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil.”
This fairly innocuous topic description has somehow been interpreted to mean Cory (full disclosure: I consider him a friend) was encouraging the NSA to spy on Second Life users in a nefarious way, which is somehow connected to his past as a Navy officer. I haven't talked with Cory at length for a year or two, but I do remember the broader context of Linden Lab's strategy at the time -- I was still working as a contractor with the company in 2006 when that strategy was already being executed. So I think there's a much likelier explanation: Cory was at the NSA to help prepare Second Life for mainstream acceptance, and preempt government regulation or censorship that would hurts its growth.
Here's what I mean, though it's actually also suggested by a paragraph in the same original New York Times article that broke the story, which people generally miss:
Mr. Ondrejka, now the director of mobile engineering at Facebook, said through a representative that the N.S.A. presentation was similar to others he gave in that period, and declined to comment further. (Emph. mine)
And, in fact, Linden Lab executives including Cory were taking many meetings with all kinds of government officials back then -- most prominently, Philip Rosedale before Congress -- for the primary purpose of promoting virtual worlds like Second Life as a legitimate, important new medium which deserved the same respect and hands-off policies from the government as the broader Internet itself. (Remember, Linden Lab at the time was promoting Second Life as "the Web 3D".) As opposed to being a haven for sex perverts, criminals, and terrorists, which was the gist of stories that started to emerge during Second Life's 2006-2007 hype wave. (Cory strongly refuted the notion of virtual worlds as a hotbed for money laundering/terrorism on his blog.) Thanks in great part to their outreach, many branches of the US government set up a presence in Second Life, and they made it part of their official Internet activity. In retrospect, it was way too early for them to do so (and still is), but if it had worked as planned, these efforts would have contributed to the foundation of a 3D web. But that would not have been possible without all that outreach -- including to the NSA.
Cory photo by Joi Ito.
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