Warcraft on Terror

Virtual jihad


Is your game room breeding jihadists? Probably not, but just to be sure the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wants to "study the emerging phenomenon of social (particularly terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games."

In other words, they'll be watching for security threats in role-playing games like World of Warcraft and virtual worlds like Second Life, where large populations interact pseudonymously. The office's February report on its data mining activities includes a description of "Reynard," a foxy "seedling effort" to begin such studies.

What, exactly, would video game terrorism look like? The report is vague, saying only that Reynard would "identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms" in such spaces and "then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world." It isn't clear what behavior would qualify as "suspicious" in online games—many of which, after all, center around sessions in which groups conspire to coordinate attacks on their enemies.

Reynard is of a piece with the office's larger data mining project, which aims to "discover or locate a predictive pattern or anomaly indicative of terrorist or criminal activity." Game worlds are just one of many corners of cyberspace being covered. The report acknowledges that "application of results from these research projects may ultimately have implications for privacy and civil liberties," adding that the office is therefore "also investing in projects that develop privacy protecting technologies." This attention to individual rights, it declares, is "a unique research effort within the intelligence community."