Terrorism In Second Life? Give Me A Break

Here in America, we have our share of stupid journalism, but we have trouble competing in the global market. For evidence, I point you to an article in <em>The Australian</em> about <a href="http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22161037-28737,00.html">terrorists in Second Life.</a></p>

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

July 31, 2007

7 Min Read

Here in America, we have our share of stupid journalism, but we have trouble competing in the global market. For evidence, I point you to an article in The Australian about terrorists in Second Life.

The article cites well-known reports of "griefing" in Second Life -- malicious practical joking -- and employs a lot of breathless prose and distortion to make it seem like the global terror network is on the brink of using Second Life to launch a real-world terror campaign against all decent people everywhere.

The article starts:

The bomb hit the ABC's headquarters, destroying everything except one digital transmission tower. The force of the blast left Aunty's site a cratered mess.

Just weeks before, a group of terrorists flew a helicopter into the Nissan building, creating an inferno that left two dead. Then a group of armed militants forced their way into an American Apparel clothing store and shot several customers before planting a bomb outside a Reebok store.

This language is an insult to the memories, families, and friends of 3,000 innocent people killed during 9/11, and the myriad more killed and injured in real terrorist attacks around the world.

In fact, nobody died in Second Life attacks. Nobody was even injured. These are avatars, they're not people.

This terror campaign, which has been waged during the past six months, has left a trail of dead and injured, and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars' damage.

No, in fact, nobody died. And the financial damage was trivial. Just reset your software. I don't know where the writer gets the figure of "hundreds of thousands of dollars'" damage. I think she just made it up.

The terrorists belong to a militant group bent on overthrowing the government.

Which government is that? The government of Australia?

She never comes back to this point and identifies who the terrorists are, or their target.

But they will never be arrested or charged for their crimes because they have committed them away from the reach of the world's law enforcement agencies, in the virtual world known as Second Life.

Now that's just plain ridiculous.

Of course they're not out of reach of governments. Second Life is part of the Internet, and the computers and people connecting to the Internet are firmly lodged in the real world. Jurisdictional issues are a huge hairball on the Internet, but we've seen time and again that local laws can eventually be made to apply to the Internet, whether it's China exercising censorship or Linden Lab cracking down on gambling and real and simulated child pornography.

[Second Life] was launched in 2003 by California-based Linden Labs....

Lab. No "s."

In SL people create their own characters, known as avatars, and live an alternative life, buying goods, real estate, and living in a community of more than eight million people from across the world.

No, 8 million people are simply the number who have created accounts, not the number who use it regularly. That's more like 500,000. We've covered this before.

On the darker side, there are also weapons armouries in SL where people can get access to guns, including automatic weapons and AK47s.

No, actually, they can't. Guns are real-life artifacts, which cannot be downloaded from the Internet. I wish they could be -- many times I've wished I could download a burrito.

You can find software representations of guns, which are used in gameplay. They're toys. However, Second Life is not the best platform for shooter games, you'll want to go elsewhere on the Internet if that's your main interest.

Searches of the SL website show there are three jihadi terrorists registered and two elite jihadist terrorist groups.

I simply don't believe this is true. As with the claim of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, the author offers no substantiation.

I think what happened here is that the author did a search on Second Life groups and found three with names coinciding with real terrorist groups, and assumed they actually corresponded with their real-world counterparts. In fact, it's more likely these names belong to a bunch of kids from Boise, Idaho, who want to appear bad-ass and impress their hax0r friends.

By the way, you can't perform that kind of search on the SL Web site, you have to log in using the SL client for that.

Also, what is the difference between a "jidhadi terrorist" and "elite jihadist terrorist group"? Is there some sort of certification process? When you become an elite jihadist terrorist, is there a graduation ceremony involving sashes?

Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian High Tech Crime Centre in Canberra, says terrorists can gain training in games such as World of Warcraft in a simulated environment, using weapons that are identical to real-world armaments.

Zuccato is alerting here us to the danger of terrorists bearing magic swords.

The recent string of terrorist attacks in SL appeared to work and frightened off some retailers.

Sez who? Some retailers have reportedly left SL, but there's no evidence to suggest this is connected to so-called terrorism.

In Nissan's case, its online officials cleaned up the mess, took away the bodies in virtual coffins and continued business.

Oh, please. Where are they getting this stuff from, anyway? There are no "bodies" -- virtual, or otherwise, and therefore nothing to be put in a virtual coffin. Your avatar cannot be altered in Second Life without your permission, and if you find yourself in an unpleasant situation, you can just teleport away or log off.

There is a kernel of truth underneath the mountain of stupid. Second Life is an environment that can be used effectively for group training exercises and communication. Like any tool, it's morally neutral. You can train in emergency services and rescue, or you can train in terrorism.

However, to say that Second Life could be used for terrorist training is a far thing from saying that it is being used that way.

We have seen some instances of griefing targeted against real-life organizations. The Australian article cites a few -- in breathless, shocked language, but, still, they did happen. And there have been others, including the famous incident where Second Life real-estate developer Anshe Chung was attacked by a cloud of flying phalluses during a CNET presentation, and John Edwards' campaign headquarters was defaced.

But these incidents are not as common as you think, and nobody was really hurt -- except for a little lost dignity. Property damage was minimal. Mostly, they're comparable to the Web site defacement that was commonplace a few years ago. Occasionally it rises to the level of a denial-of-service-attack.

Still, griefing is getting to be more of a problem on Second Life, as the service matures and becomes more of a target and its security is exposed as inadequate. Large businesses in SL are subjected to practical jokes.

We discussed this matter at this morning's Geek Meet in Second Life. SL land baron and gadfly Prokofy Neva, herself a frequent target of griefing, said the incidents can be compared to terrorism, in that they are intended to disrupt commerce, and often share agendas of bigotry or anti-business politics with real-world terrorists.

"But they don't actually terrify," I said. "They do if your livelihood depends on it," she responded.

These are good points -- but, still, Second Life terrorism -- or any form of cyberterrorism -- is not the same thing as setting off bombs in the real world.

TechCrunch picked up on the Terrorism Second Life story late yesterday, and readers posted some choice comments.

Jesse writes: "Chuck Norris needs to create a SL character and pwn those noobs."

And Greg J. Smith quips:

Sorry, this terrorist attack can not be completed at this time as the grid is down for scheduled maintenance.

Please consider rescheduling your attack on our freedom at a later date.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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