Forget the Cupcakes, Fashion, and Video Games: We Need to Talk About the NSA
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?Tweet
Iris 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.