We've recently seen silly articles hyping the threat of terrorists using virtual worlds and other Web 2.0 sites for recruitment, planning, and training. And we've seen equally silly articles ridiculing the idea. The truth is that Web 2.0 tools are great for terrorism, for the same reasons they're great for legitimate projects. That doesn't mean we should shut down Facebook and Second Life to protect ourselves from instant, horrible death. But we do need to rationally evaluate possible threats.
Salon weighs in with the latest silly article:
Lately there has been some rather bizarre hype about the potential threat from terrorists in cyberspace. Security specialists have been expressing increasing concern about the potential for mischief with Web 2.0. In particular, during the past six months a spate of newspaper articles have been citing security experts about the alleged danger that terrorists will use virtual worlds for nefarious purposes. Groups such as the U.S. government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity say they fear that terrorists -- using virtual personas called "avatars" -- will recruit new members online, transfer funds in ways that cannot be traced, and may engage in training exercises that are useful for real-world terrorist operations. They point to existing "terrorist groups" operating on virtual reality sites as an ominous sign.
If you follow the first two links in that paragraph, you'll find the best and worst recent journalism about terrorism and Web 2.0. The Washington Post does a solid job discussing the problem. But the newspaper the Australian gets all sensationalistic and dumb. I had a good time ridiculing the Australian article when it first came out in July.
The threat of terrorists using Web 2.0 is real. The same characteristics that make Second Life and other Web 2.0 tools great for collaboration on legitimate projects make them great for collaboration by terrorists: The tools are inexpensive, they're easy to use, you can use them anonymously and shield your real identity, they're globally available, and they facilitate communications between teams of people.
The Salon article ridicules the idea that Second Life could be used for rehearsing terrorist activities. But why is that ridiculous? We've seen Second Life used for anti-terrorism training. Orkin is looking into Second Life for multiple training simulations, including house inspection and handling chemicals, according to an article in Wired.
The Wired article adds, sensibly: "Real-world training and certification will always be necessary, [David Lamb, Orkin's VP of learning and media services] notes, but -- especially in the early stages of training -- real savings could be seen through a virtual online environment." There's no reason terrorists might not enjoy those same advantages.
Do terrorists have the wherewithal to use Web 2.0 tools? After all, everybody knows that terrorists are recruited from the poorest of the poor, from the slums of Riyadh and Beirut and Tehran. They don't have computers and Internet access -- they don't even have indoor plumbing and electricity. Right?
Even leaving aside multimillionaire Osama bin Laden, the backgrounds of the September 11 killers indicates that they were without exception scions of privilege: All were either affluent Saudis and Egyptians, citizens of the wealthy Gulf statelets, or rich sons of Lebanon, trained in and familiar with the ways of the West -- not exactly the victims of poverty in Muslim dictatorships. Many poor Egyptians, Moroccans, and Palestinians may support terrorists, but they do not -- and cannot -- provide them with recruits. In fact, Al Qaeda has no use for illiterate peasants. They cannot participate in World Trade Center-like attacks, unable as they are to make themselves inconspicuous in the West and lacking the education and training terrorist operatives need.
In other words, the people who become terrorists have access to PCs and high-speed Internet connections.
Faced with the prospect of terrorists using Web 2.0 tools, what should we do about it? We have three options:
We can put our fingers in our ears and go la, la, la, la, la, la and pretend the problem doesn't exist.
We can demonize Web 2.0 tools and virtual worlds, hold shrill government hearings, publish sensationalist headlines, scare the spit out of everybody, create thousands of pages of pointless government regulation, inconvenience hundreds of millions of Internet users, and wantonly violate civil rights.
Or we can look into apparent terrorist threats on Web 2.0 sites, while keeping a cool head and letting the overwhelming majority of people continue using the sites for work, play, and -- most definitely -- political dissent.
Sensible precautions require that governments allocate funds to learn about Web 2.0 sites and virtual worlds, to consider how they might be used for terror, and how governments' legal powers of search and investigation might apply in those environments.
What do you think? Is terrorism using Web 2.0 a threat?