Tuesday, December 10, 2013

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Forget the Cupcakes, Fashion, and Video Games: We Need to Talk About the NSA

Sadie brow raised
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

You know, I'm having a very hard time covering my usual beat right now. It feels pretty gross to lead in to an article about the NSA with a post about a Cupcake Festival, and it feels just as gross following it with anything else. Just as Hamlet wrote yesterday, I can't say that I was surprised by this week's revelation that the NSA has been using Second Life (among other virtual worlds and game platforms) to spy on U.S. and non-U.S. citizens alike. I'm not foaming at the mouth about this myself, but it's serious enough that I don't want to be the one bookending it with fluff.

"'Serious?' Oh come on Iris, they were probably all hanging out on Bukkake Bliss Island, so who cares? All I do is shop anyway, who would want to spy on that?"

It's time for some real talk: Yes this is serious, and even if you don't have anything to hide, even if you think you're just too mundane to be of interest to anyone, you're wrong.

Actually, I'd say that Second Life is probably the most valid target from the list, specifically because of its economy which went essentially unregulated for a long time. Unlike the vast majority of other MMOs it's very easy to turn Second Life transactions into a cash payout. For a game like World of Warcraft, any kind of cashing out involves third party sites, and even if a shady individual or group were to operate such a site for themselves they would only have access to a sliver of the userbase. Not so with SL, where nearly everyone participates in the virtual economy at some point, whether they're cashing out or cashing in. This is why it also makes perfect sense that one of the few successes mentioned, the apprehension of a group selling stolen credit cards, also took place in Second Life.

Here's the part where I know at least a handful of readers will be saying "Well, I don't steal credit cards, I'm not doing any money laundering, I'm no terrorist... I'm just buying stuff for my avatar and socializing, so why should any of this bother me?" Spying is absolutely warranted in many cases, but there is a tremendous difference between targeted, sanctioned spying and blanket data collection. It's a comforting thought; if you don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to worry about. The problem is that history is littered with cases of people not knowing specifically what innocent thing they should actually be hiding until it's too late for them to do so. Someone reading a newspaper in a second language could be a foreign spy, someone too invested in improving their work conditions could be a communist...

Let's be honest here, there are many people in Second Life doing thing that their RL employers may not approve of. Maybe you know better than to post drunk selfies of yourself on Facebook, but what have you been up to in the presumed privacy of your virtual home? What it boils down to is that there are a lot of little things we certainly don't think much of until someone else does, and although it's unlikely anyone will be coming to take you away in the night, you'll never know who has your name on file.

And that's if you had perfect control over (and recollection of) everything you said or did online. Maybe you've come home from a long day at work and you want to talk to your SL BFFs about it. Maybe you break confidentiality or say something you technically shouldn't, just to get it off your chest. It's not a big deal though, right? It's just your friends, you've known them for years. Maybe afterwards you'll all gather around your SL movie player of choice to watch a pirated stream of Catching Fire together.

While we're on the subject, what about those friends you've known for years? What are they up to? One of them asked you to hold into some L$ for them recently, do you know why? She also asked you to help her get into that invite-only group, why? What do they do? Are you a member? What about that person you paid for that item a few months ago, you know the one. What do you know about them? We just need you to answer a few questions...

Do you see where I'm going with this? 

Everyone has said things they shouldn't have, everyone has done things that someone else would be interested to hear about. Tell me now who might want to spy on you?

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Timesand has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan andwith pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Ai Austin

And policies and laws change... you may not always have the same government in your country or region with the same "reasonable" views you voted for or can tolerate now.

A stored mass of data that can be trawled as policies change will allow more efficient round ups of entire classes of individuals on some specification in future.

And it could be very useful to be able to look back over years of accummulated mass data for potential dissidents to future policies and changing social norms.

Mass data collection for future data mining is quite a different matter to personal named targeted surveillance authorized by your current government.


If Tim Wu's idea of "The Cycle" holds true this time, the Internet generally, let alone SL, will eventually become as regulated and monitored as the old AT&T, the Hollywood studio system, or network TV. Each of these telecommunications technologies went through an era of openness.

My only hope is that this time, the tech is global, bigger than any one government. And the companies profiting from this revolution in how we communicate are likewise global.

Amanda Dallin

Iggy, I'm afraid the regulating and taxing entities will also be global. Their just catching up.


Did you know that the largest operation of the NSA is economic espionage? They even have a form on their homepage where american companies can request NSA or CIA support for their business or negotiations with foreign companies or governments.
Also, people should be aware that the NSA is only a few years ahead of everybody else. Soon most coutries or large organisatons, even the mafia will have similar capabilities.


Bringing all your dirty stuff to the web, then tearing hair off because someone can find it. XXI century, guys. Is it hard to live the way nobody can say anything bad about you?


I'm not surprised that Second Life is a target for mass surveillance. As a matter of fact, I'm not surprised LL doesn't care. Remember, it took them ages to go after zFire Xue, and the ToS-violating Gemini CDS Ban Relay (which also acts as an encouragement for "content creators" - yeah, the very people that sell ripped content all over the damn place) is still allowed to be sold, and its creator is now LL's pet.

Dartagan Shepherd

I could take the position of this blog on the recent ToS changes or tier pricing issues etc. and say "don't worry about it, it's just SL drama, it won't make a dent".

On a more serious note, I remember Phil Rosedale in the congressional hearing stuttering out a vague answer on how long chat logs were kept. I think he mumbled 6 months or so.

Another ex-Linden (I don't remember who) bragging that they "know everything" and eluded to never deleting chat logs.

I'm not suprised because those were the issues at the hearing. Money laundering, logs and possible terrorist activity. The purpose of the hearing was to suck up to the government and the potential contracts.

That said, I've always considered anything in SL to be public because at the very least LL keeps it around where it can be accessed by anyone with a subpoena or authority forever.

The NSA should point the IRS and FTC in LL's direction though. Because audits are a healthy thing and funny money is no excuse for not having any liability whatsoever.

Issa Heckroth

For anyone still hung up on the "well I have nothing to hide" nonsense.


"When the nothing-to-hide argument is unpacked, and its underlying assumptions examined and challenged, we can see how it shifts the debate to its terms, then draws power from its unfair advantage. The nothing-to-hide argument speaks to some problems but not to others. It represents a singular and narrow way of conceiving of privacy, and it wins by excluding consideration of the other problems often raised with government security measures.

When engaged directly, the nothing-to-hide argument can ensnare, for it forces the debate to focus on its narrow understanding of privacy. But when confronted with the plurality of privacy problems implicated by government data collection and use beyond surveillance and disclosure, the nothing-to-hide argument, in the end, has nothing to say."

Connie Arida

I have yet to meet a single person without something to hide from someone.( except for me and my monkey )
On a more serious note, what is to stop someone from starting multiple accounts ( bank accounts too) in SL and "selling" things to themselves and thus laundering money.

Arcadia Codesmith

There is a significant list of people serving long jail terms for minor infractions that in some cases they didn't even know were illegal. The government tried to use some bullshit charge to get them to inform on or infiltrate some other target, they didn't play ball, and the system came down on them like a ton of bricks -- not for their "crimes", but because they didn't cooperate.

There are various police and federal jurisdictions in America seizing property every day without a warrant or any due process whatsoever and never returning it. This is allowed under the ridiculous conceit of bringing civil charges against the property, not the owner.

Crazy alarmist nuts waste time and energy pointing fingers at one President or another, but that's a distraction, a smokescreen. The simple fact of the matter is that our most fundamental civil liberties have been eroded, over the course of DECADES, with the support and cooperation of both major political parties under the rubric of "getting tough on crime".

And the for-profit prison contractors just chuckle and pad their bids with more zeroes. We're all guilty of something. And the only way to keep us perfectly safe from ourselves is when we're all behind bars.

Orwell was only off by thirty years or so.


So it's said and not taken too lightly, SL is owned by a behavioral research firm, has been from the beginning. You were already being watched and tracked, only this time it's 'news'. Let that sink in.

Issa Heckroth

Arcadia - Thought everything you say I agree with, I think what we have today is more some unholy mix between 1984 and Huxleys Brave New World.

The terrifying thing for me is not that they are doing it, but how quickly we became comfortable with the Surveillance State.

I wonder if this will effect the sex trade in SL at all now its official that pictures of your e-peen are probably on file somewhere.

Pussycat Catnap

The NSA is a lot less dangerous than Google, Facebook, or any of the other mega-corps.

I don't like any of them spying on us, but people have their priorities of where the threat lies backwards.

Laws, bureaucracy, elections, policy, and so forth put a check on governments.

NOTHING puts a check on rich people with corporations.

Issa Heckroth

Pussycat - Its a synergy of the two that is so dangerous. I don't think one can really separate Corporate from Government these days. The revolving door between Big Business and Government is well known in most countries. Just most are unaware of the sheer scale of it.

Pussycat Catnap

@Isaa: true. Especially since Citizen's United, government now comes with an 'Inc.' on the end of it in the USA.

In an otherwise bit of ranting on the forums, I've said a bit that is relevant here:

One thing to note is that we actually have a chance of not only stopping the NSA, but changing their mindset on this and making them want to stop so they can be more effectively focused.

The NSA is accountable to a government. And that government is elected. Yes it is mostly bought and paid for by the corps... but they have yet to repeal all of our voting rights... just some of them for racial minorities in red states...

So we actually can flip this and reign them in.

No reason to give up.

Big corporations though - Google, Facebook, Amazon, Miscrosoft, Apple... we have no chance of stopping them...

As for the NSA being in SL and WoW and so on... what it really shows is that they have so little oversight at present that they have lost site of professionalism. They're making dragnets.

And that rarely is useful in stopping guilty parties, but also tends to consume a lot of policing power. So all this power that could be spent stopping the next 9/11... is instead being wasted trying to figure out why 'Baby Girl 69' is no longer dating 'Big Ride Stud', who is now dating 'Baby Girl Luvs U'...

Which is a serious /fail moment for policing professionalism...

(is it just me seeing this, or has "every" 7-foot tall blingtard dating drama resident added 'Baby Girl' to her display name over the last year? How did that name become a thing...?)


In other words... one concern in the NSA doing all this is that it is a massive waste of a resource...


When you share anything personal on the internet, via Facebook or even Second Life, you are agreeing that it's public-same applies when you send email, there is precedent for this in court.

It's one thing for them to come knocking at your door, but altogether different when you willingly upload it on the internet-you basically have and are not entitled to privacy on the internet. If you think that is a broad statement, you really should read the small print with some of the services you use on a daily basis.

If you do a little digging, the head guy at Google was once employed by the government, guess which department! There are no coincidences.

Kim Anubis

"Is it hard to live the way nobody can say anything bad about you?"

Apparently so, or you wouldn't be posting with a fake name.

Hokey Pokey

I am not suprised to hear that NSA is "listening in". But I'm not overly concerned about it. They have been "listening in" for a long time. They cannot possibly sort through the VAST amounts of data they collect and look for key things. And honestly if it helps prevent another 9-11 from happening I'm ok with that. A poor comparison I know - but people whined and complained about having to take their shoes off or being searched before boarding a plane. I will gladly remove my shoes or be searched. I'd much prefer that than let someone sneak a bomb on that plane and I die.



If they have the ability to collect, they have the ability to sort it. That huge collection center that was built in the middle of nowhere Utah is a testament to that.

Patterns on your spending/consuming habits are already gathered and tied to your various online presences and ultimately to the 'real you'.Seems harmless enough, but imagine them utilizing it in a different way, and yes they are doing that too. Every detail, documented , categorized and sorted.

More on that info. center:


Pussycat Catnap

"They cannot possibly sort through the VAST amounts of data they collect and look for key things."

- A simple keyword search of a database can do that in microseconds.

Want proof, search google for the word "microsecond" and see how long it takes to get how many results.

Cross reference that with something odd, like "Snowden". I instantly got relevant results.

Technology... it works faster than flipping through the encyclopedia by hand, and it can put almost any two random things together.


"And honestly if it helps prevent another 9-11 from happening I'm ok with that."

There's little to suggest it will help with that. OTOH, it's a known fact that whenever governments engage in this sort of activity, it results in abuse. You don't even have to point to J. Edgar Hoover or the Church Committee -- we already know the current NSA has been using their data to spy on and stalk ex-wives, girlfriends and political enemies. History does not record any case where this kind of surveillance was *not* widely abused to the detriment of the people it is ostensibly supposed to protect. It has no proven benefit and abundantly proven costs.

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