Friday, August 10, 2007

Virtual jihad in Second Life?

From The Sunday Times
August 5, 2007
Virtual jihad hits Second Life website
Chris Gourlay and Abul Taher

Islamic militants are suspected of using Second Life, the internet virtual world, to hunt for recruits and mimic real-life terrorism.

Police and the intelligence services are concerned that it may have been infiltrated by extremists to proselytise, communicate and transfer money to one another. Radicals may also be responsible for “virtual” terrorist attacks in which buildings depicted on the website are blown up.

Kevin Zuccato, head of the Australian government’s High Tech Crime Centre, said jihadists may also be using the virtual reality world to master skills such as reconnaissance and surveillance. “We need to start thinking about living, working and protecting two worlds and two realities,” he told a security industry conference in Sydney.

The concerns are shared by Europol, the pan-European police agency, which believes that Second Life provides a means to transfer money across borders in a way that is more difficult for the authorities to monitor. It has recruited security consultants to advise on the use of Second Life for fraud and terrorism.

Of particular concern is the anonymity of Second Life members who can use false names for their digital personas, known as avatars, to disguise their real identity and provide false contact details in the real world.

Intelligence sources said that although communications traffic through Second Life could in theory be monitored, often the only means of tracking an individual is by tracing the user’s IP address - the physical location of a computer in the real world - but even this can be faked. Monitoring complex money movements in the virtual world presents law enforcement agencies with further surveillance challenges.

Second Life, which has a global membership of more than 8.5m, uses three-dimensional graphics technology to create a virtual world. Anyone can become a member or “resident” for free and roam the virtual world after creating an avatar. They then meet and interact with other users’ avatars, visiting shops, theatres and sports events, trading goods and services and having sex.

So popular has Second Life become that companies such as Sony, BMW and Reebok have bought “land” and opened premises there. Some governments, including that of Sweden, have opened virtual embassies in Second Life.

Recently, inhabitants of the virtual world have experienced a more sinister phenomenon - virtual terrorist attacks against buildings and avatars. A recent attack took place at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Second Life base. A number of these attacks, known as “griefings”, have been launched by what industry insiders say are “geeky teenagers” giving themselves names such as the Second Life Liberation Army.

Some experts, however, believe the “virtual atrocities” may have been committed by real Islamic radicals. Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, said that for the past three months he had monitored about 12 jihadists who have assumed identities in Second Life. He said they were mostly based in America and Europe.

Some radicals, he said, had given themselves “innocuous” titles, while others had provocative jihadist names such as Irhabi007 (Arabic for Terrorist007). Gunaratna acknowledged that not all Islamists had any intention of carrying out terrorist attacks in real life, but said that they were using Second Life to build a community of extremists.

“Even in the training camps of Afghanistan, less than 1% returned and committed terrorist acts,” said Gunaratna.

Second Life has its own currency, the Linden dollar, named after the company behind the virtual reality world. About 250 Linden dollars are equivalent to one US dollar and residents can buy the currency from the company to trade in Second Life.

Linden Lab said that about $1m (£490,000) a day was exchanged in Second Life.

Linden, which has a team monitoring financial transactions in Second Life, said it was not aware of any money being exchanged by jihadists, but could not rule out the possibility.

Europol and the British Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) are concerned that Second Life provides an ideal facility for criminals to launder money through in-world enterprises such as casinos. There are fears that terrorists could also take advantage of difficulties in policing Linden dollar movements to transfer funds between operatives around the world.

A Soca source said the agency was looking at ways to address illicit financial activity in the virtual world.

The source added that policing the movement of money in Second Life presents challenges, as funds may be transferred across borders.

Mark Johnson, chairman of Risk Management Group, a British agency that advises Europol on fraud and terrorism in Second Life, said: “The critical issue with terrorist funding cases is trying to detect money movements prior to the commission of the crime. So if you can move money around in secret in an environment where there is little surveillance, it is a very sensitive point.”

John Zdanowski, chief financial officer at Linden, said the company strictly monitored the exchange of money in Second Life. So far, he added, there had not been any suspicious transaction where the company had called in the police or the FBI.

Linden also said that it was unaware of any extremists using Second Life.


SuezanneC Baskerville said...

Just how did Rohan Gunaratna track jihadists in Second Life?

How did he indentify them, how does he know they are who he thinks they are?

I see no reason to single out Second Life as the virtual world of choice for planning terrorist actions in the real world. Granted, SL's simple building system makes construction of mockups of target locations fairly easy, but there are other systems that might serve the purpose and produce more accurate results with fewer technical problems and greater security. Google Maps and Sketchup might allow the creation of exportable virtual worlds with models of buildings into an Active Worlds or Qwak or Multiverse world, as an example.

It pretty much follows that terrorists will use the same tools that everyone uses for planning their actions. Terrorists use pencils and paper to write with, terrorists use cell phones, terrorists use the same means or communciatons and planning and data storage and data manipulation as anyone else would use. There are undoubtedly Google Docs and Spreadsheets systems and Zoho notes and wikis and private free forums, etc. etc. being used by terrorists. It's not likely that all the planning of large scale terrorism is all being conducted by obscure means such as coded messages in newspaper classified ads.

Kevin said...

Thank you for your comment. I believe SL was singled out because it is the biggest and most widely known virtual community.