« Fifty days and worlds apart | Main | Escort derails coverage of science museums in 'Second Life' »

Sep 15, 2008



Everquest is referred to as an "old school roleplaying game". Hmm. :)


I don't know. This seems to be sort of buzzword laden and stagnant (the idea, not the article). We can see (in hindsight) how small groups use the internet in order to communicate and advertise. We can also see how messageboards, open proxies and video sites were used to teach disparate groups. The way I see it, those solved problems. What problem does this solve?

I think the argument being used here is that a 3-D online world (here they used wow so it would seem topical) could be used to stage and test plans for offline attacks. As DARPA's games department can attest to, this is a difficult task. Mockups work the way they do if they force the stimulation of mirror neurons or help form pathways for motor memory. We build physical mockups so we can practice the physical event multiple times. We build certain simulations in order to associate watching the "character" doing events with us doing them. Mockups can also be used to get a rough sense of the physicality of an area (I remember the post about guilds using SL as a place to lay raids out), but I don't really see that happening in this summary.

I see the threat represented as "WoW is this game world with its own lingo and chat functionality that we can't quite understand". That isn't very threatening to me. A terrorist can't really do much in wow other than play wow. WoW is a lot of things, but it isn't really open to molding new user experiences. If I wanted to make a reliable mockup of someplace in RL while in WoW, I would have a heck of a time. So even assuming that they were in Burning Steppes pretending that it was washington, the threat becomes: the terrorists could be talking to each other in "wowspeak" and we wouldn't know it. That's pretty lame, all things considered. furthermore, I could foil all of this government surveillance by just saying "the nuke is 'Pyroblast'" and the whitehouse is 'Balinda Stonehearth". They they wouldn't be using terminology from outside wow. Or they could just not invite the NSA to their guild.

I think their risk assessment has gotten a hair more sophisticated, if only because they are closer to attributing the correct features to WoW than they were before. We aren't hearing about a pentagon briefing detailing how terrorists will use Eve Online to bring down the power grid. But it is still grasping at straws. I think that is natural. This is a culture that is totally foreign to these guys (the brass). There will be a long period of adjustment until they can learn to talk about it like it is another sector of the web. And by long I mean LOONG.


Another thing. We tend to overstate the importance of the threats we know. In this case, I think that the military predilection for mockups and staging may lead them to believe that their opponents make similar decisions. If there is one thing that the military does, it is practice. All branches, for all reasons. While the 9/11 hijacker's worked on a flight simulator, that was mostly to (presumably) work out the part of the assault that would be totally foreign to them: aircraft control. I doubt that similar actions covering the entry, passenger control and such were physically mocked up in any significant fashion. This isn't to assume any lack of intelligence from the "other" side but to suggest that a different corporate culture may be at work.

What problem does this solve?

A terrorist group - as opposed to a lone individual, like the Unabomber - needs some means for members to communicate with each other. It would be prudent for them to assume that the authorities are monitoring traffic data (who calls who) from the telephone system, if not the actual content of calls. So they can't just talk over the phone, because this will allow the authorities to work out who the group members are, by analysisng who calls who (and then, arrest the lot of them). So they need a communication channel where the authorities don't even have traffic data. If the government is monitoring IP packets, they know that person A is communicating with a WoW server, and person B is also communicating with a WoW server, but not that A and B are talking to each other within WoW. The large number of WoW players who aren't terrorists provide cover traffic.

The obvious countermeasure - from the government's point of view - is to acquire the traffic data from within WoW and other popular MMO's. This shouldn't be hard[*] - I think messages within the game are logged anyway.

[*] Shouldn't be hard technically. Legality is another matter, but a government organization that can just ignore the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act might be willing to break other laws too. [P.S. Yardley's "The American Black Chamber" is a good read.]


i think Adam's point about the need for practice , i.e. to train for the unthinkable or the paranoid, e.g. the speculative nature of threat assessment is fine, and perhaps unavoidable with the postmodern concern of constant threat and constant paranoia and fear.

there's a certain amount of speculation that goes on in the intelligence community about how far is too far when dealing in incomplete information, and constructing profiles of behaviour and threats based upon massive data mining and construction of weighted risk and weighted threats based upon details like belonging to various cultures and social groups, internet usage history and library rentals, travel history, religious attendance and group participation, languages spoken, phone calls made, specific education and proficiency, etc.

and it's not the simple-minded paranoia for the US spook-services, those members of the govermnet and private industry tasked with observing and controlling all forms of communication and social interactions that might be construed as hostile to society.

the fear is also there to freely associate your concept of pre-action to action and reaction

if you think that guy behind you in the supermarket is just looking at your trolley, for no reason ?

just think about it...
you just never know ...

why, he's probably trying to establish wether you're going to hold him up in the 8 items or less counter. or he thinks you're going to hold up the teller and rob the place, or maybe he's going to rob the place and checking out if you're going to react.

maybe he could be a religious fundamentalist who think's you're possibly a homosexual by the choice of items on your trolley, or he could be assessing your grocery habits that therefore indicate your health to work out if he's going to kill you and later assume your identity for other nefarious reasons.

maybe he's already killed someone, assumed their identity and he's just now writing up a news post about the everpresent and constant paranoia exhibited in the public, on terra nova in order to alleviate suspicion and denature his possible threat assessment by using a third party to throw suspicion upon, namely the U.S. government's wide array of intelligence gathering and analysis services.

...you just never know.
you'd better shoot him now, just to be safe.

but, be quick, he could have an accomplice somewhere else, perhaps hiding in the parking lot, waiting there for you to open your car door ...


Given that Terrorist are going to plan some how - would it not be a good thing is terrorists used WoW to plan activities? WoW is centralized, data minded and monitored up the ying and the yang. I'm not saying anyone would spot anything, but at least there is a chance.

OpenSim or any of the other platforms that can be downloaded and run off ones own server however can be highly secured from agency snooping.

I guess the argument would be that it's better for terrorist to do things in the open in a way that can only be decoded by themselves as than in virtual 'no rooms' that can be detected by their very absence. But if that is the argument then the range of shared technology that could be used ranges from sand and a stick up to WoW and beyond.

In the end I wonder what motivates stories and indeed research like this. The possibility of detection seems remote (at one end) or in-hand (at the other), the affordances of a given technology shaping terrorist behavior seems low - so what is it, are we just being reminded to be afraid, of something?


@Adam: I doubt they used flight simulator. It might be something you could practice a thing or two with, but definitely not the manoeuvres those guys had to execute.

This is pretty ridiculous though. It's not like it's hard to track down a guild, 40% of which are on the "possible terrorist"-list and considering the fact that Blizzard logs all the conversations, they're not hard to surveillance either. Setting up a VPN over Hamachi with AES military-grade encryption would be safer, easier and way more productive. Run it over TOR or some other proxy service and you're quite invisible.

Other than that: Terrorist planning attacks in WoW? Right... And the North Koreans are practicing nuclear launches in Starcraft.


Thing is, consolidated online worlds would be *much* easier to monitor than real world communication. You just need enough sock puppet players hanging around various parts of the world until you find people who seem to be talking about terrorism or whatever, and start logging what they're talking about.


@Nicholas Chambers: I mean they literally used a flight instruction simulator for a heavy passenger aircraft. That was the whole "why didn't the FBI listen to that pilot instructor in florida before 9/11" bit. I didn't mean to say that they bought Microsoft flight simulator.


I have a funny feeling that if you renamed it to "World of Orcs and Elves", they'd get a little less confused.


@Adam: Pardons, my mistake. Talking about automatically associating trademarks here. :)


Two quick things:

First: If the logic is this simple, we have a problem:

1. WoW (and any VW) are ways to communicate with other people, sometimes with fairly high degrees of secrecy.
2. Terrorists (or Reds, or Witches...) need secret ways to communicate.
3. ERGO, the Government must heavily monitor all VWs for possible terrorist activity.

Not practical. What are they going to do, put a monitoring software on all text (or in-game mail) communication in all VWs? Not that it wouldn't be considered, but not likely to come about.

SECOND: @Adam and Nicholoas: I could be wrong, but I believe that some of the 9/11 attackers DID use MS Flight Simulator to train. (I know it and flight sim games helped me learn to fly real planes, to my surprise.)


Hmm. Last month I anonymously rented a Ventrillo server for one month for $3.00US, because some new family-member players couldn't use the built-in voice chat. After they upgraded, we just use the built in voice...

Seriously? WoW Text Chat? Who's kidding who? There's also YIM, Skype, TeamSpeak...

Any terrorist with half a brain (not all of them, I know) has tons of ways of communicating via the web undetected.

Maybe the feds are trying to give them the idea of how to use WoW Text Chat for this purpose, since it is a place they *can* track...



@ F. Randall - I agree totally. Communication itself isn't really much of a problem. I'm not sure if that's the right focus. Of course if a particular hub was proven to use by such organizations, that would be different...


WoW's advantage is that it is fun. Playing the game for what it is can strengthen social bonds, between players far away. Playing touch football together a couple times a week is much harder.

Its got a bit of hazing to it too, shared suffering through running the gauntlet of the same kill quests builds a sort of brotherhood.

"Team building", trust, knowing each others foibles and temperament etc can be enhanced by running instances together, especially using voice chat.

And they could look foward do doing that all.

But, could a suspected terrorist use WoW to communicate with unsuspected terrorists without giving them away? No way. I'm sure blizzard would cooperate, the same tools that monitor cheating could be used to spy with...account identities and Ip addresses could be back traced etc.

Maybe they'd look like such geeks playing games all day long they'd throw the feds off the track though.

As others have said ,as games go, it doesn't particularly lend itself to scenario practice. In WoW you have so little control of the environment that you can't even drop an object on the ground for others to see or manipulate. That minor ability is available all sorts of other places.


Very good. Thanks. :)

The comments to this entry are closed.