The Washington Post reports that intelligence officials are warning that popular online virtual worlds could become a way for terrorists to move money and organize and conduct espionage.
The online worlds, such as Second Life, are role-playing games that allow users to create a computer persona, known as an avatar. The avatars explore the computer worlds and in some games have even spawned their own economies, with banks springing up in the games and money changing virtual hands.
Intelligence officials who have examined these systems say they're convinced that the qualities that many computer users find so attractive about virtual worlds -- including anonymity, global access and the expanded ability to make financial transfers outside normal channels -- have turned them into seedbeds for transnational threats.
"The virtual world is the next great frontier and in some respects is still very much a Wild West environment," a recent paper by the government's new Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity said.
The article says that officials from Linden Labs, which operates Second Life, have initiated meetings with intelligence officials, and that they say that systems to monitor avatar activity and identify risky behavior are already built in to the game.
Jim Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the government's concerns are similar to when cell phones and the Internet first gained widespread use.
Dempsey said the national security fears are overblown, in part because the country already has legal and technical mechanisms in place to give the government access to digital records it needs.
"They want to control this technology and make it even easier to tap than it already is," Dempsey said. "When the government is finished, every new technology becomes a more powerful surveillance tool than the technology before it."
Although officials fear that activity in Second Life could facilitate terrorist action in the real world, there have been fraud and harassment troubles in the virtual world. Additionally, it recently closed its banks due to concerns over whether the institutions were paying the promised interest.