Middle-East Expert Scoffs at MMO Terror Cell Notion

While U.S. intelligence operatives are actively developing software to spy on players of online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, a noted scholar finds the government’s cloak-and-dagger approach bizarre.

In a thought-provoking article for Salon, Juan Cole, author and professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, writes:

What’s the real game here?

…The notion that wandering around such an imaginary world with a computerized body is dangerous to anyone seems itself cartoonish and calls into question the public hand-wringing by security experts.

It’s long been clear that the Bush administration authorized illegal, warrantless wiretaps on the American public, and that major U.S. telecom companies often cooperated… Dick Cheney recently urged making this type of unchecked domestic surveillance permanent.

Cole describes how unimpressed he was by his own recent visit to Second Life:

There were some technical glitches at first in setting up the audio, and the interview was cut short when “Second Life” suddenly announced they were closing down that area…. the week before my appearance, banks in “Second Life” were closed down… The institutional frameworks are to date so unreliable that terrorists likely could not count on a money-launderer…

Cole is also skeptical of using a platform like Second Life as a terrorist training camp:

If the July 7, 2005, bombers of the London Underground could so easily be recruited in a gym in Leeds, why go to all the trouble of creating an avatar?…

One [security] expert… darkly observed that one can find stockpiles of weapons in virtual worlds, without seeming to take note of the fact that those weapons are … cartoon weapons…

Even the Internet war-game sites… which include “Worlds of Warcraft” — would probably just make most terrorists overweight and addicted to the Internet…

Finally Cole finds government monitoring of virtual worlds unwarranted and unconstitutional:

The recent alarmism about terrorist activity in virtual worlds seems designed to prey on the fears of the Internet common among the Great Unwired…

Any monitoring by law enforcement of innocuous activity and communication in a virtual world, conducted broadly and without oversight, would be unconstitutional and could invade the privacy of millions of persons.

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