When the NSA leaks began emerging this Summer, I asked Linden Lab if it was one of the many Internet companies providing the US spy agency with users' data, a question to which I receive no reply, which was no surprise -- so I wasn't surprised to read this New York Times story that the NSA is, indeed, monitoring Second Life users, along with other virtual worlds. Because actually, the real surprise would be if the NSA wasn't monitoring Second Life. Here's some background:
- Back in 2007, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, a top Al Qaeda expert, told me jihadists were using Second Life to meet, perhaps creating anonymous groups of like-minded extremists. As I noted then, "if there are Jihadists in Second Life, there are also counter-terrorists. US Homeland Security, of course, set up a temporary SL project back in 2005 [pictured above]; it's likely that intelligence agencies and investigators like Dr. Gunaratna are already in-world, even without the Lindens' knowledge."
- In 2008, then-Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale appeared before Congress to talk about the value and potential dangers of Second Life (which led to a segment on "The Daily Show".)
- By 2008, Congress was late to the party, since by then, most branches of the US military, and major government agencies like NASA and NOAA, either had an official presence in Second Life, or were actively exploring it.
So with all that US government activity in Second Life we already know about, it's really not a surprise to find the NSA is there too. The more interesting question is whether this is a good idea, and whether it should be Constitutionally permitted at all. As it happens, leading jurist and legal theorist Judge Richard Posner discussed this in Second Life, when he appeared in SL to talk about his book on Constitutional rights in the age of Al Qaeda:
“There is I believe no legal impediment to an FBI special agent enrolling in Second Life under an avatar that would not identify him as an agent,” Judge Richard Posner opined back then, when I asked him about it. “The general rule is that if a building or other area is open to the public, anyone can enter if he adheres to the rules of the owner, but the owner cannot bar an investigator who does not resort to coercion or other distinctive police methods of investigation.” Judge Posner went on to offer a tacit acknowledgement that the conflict could make its way into the metaverse. “The Internet offers opportunities both for terrorists and counterterrorism,” he observed. So it's an arms race between the opposing forces, both seeking maximum advantage from the digital revolution.” And though it should have been expected all along, now we know Judge Posner's predictions have come true.
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