Virtual gamers everywhere went into a real-world panic last year when they learned the National Security Agency was monitoring participants in World of Warcraft and Second Life, two popular online fantasy games played by millions around the world.
But spying on real people as they role play in virtual worlds shouldn’t come as such a surprise when you consider the alternate high-tech futures envisioned in a study commissioned in 2008 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That study, “3-D Cyberspace Spillover: where virtual worlds get real,” offered a scary look at the potential future blending of real people and real threats with the online world.
The 142-page confidential study, written by a mix of government and nongovernmental experts, was developed as part of the DNI’s Summer Hard Problem program, known as SHARP, and does not represent the official position of DNI. It was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and posted Jan. 8 on FAS’ Project on Government Secrecy website.
But what’s really amazing about the document is that it represents the views of a group of real people — intelligence and security experts from the government and academia. Somewhere, there are serious people who think the following could happen.
Osama bin Laden could achieve virtual immortality through an avatar that will use recordings of the dead terrorist’s voice to preach, recruit and propagate radical dogma. “The Bin Ladin avatar could preach and issue new fatwas for hundreds of years to come, as the fidelity of his likeness would be entirely believable and animated in new ways to keep him current and fresh,” the report states.
China may one day control the software that runs the dominant virtual world used for commerce, communication, entertainment and education, and as a result, could spread its authoritarian-friendly technologies around the world. The U.S. would not be immune to this.
iGlasses (eyeglasses equipped with microprocessors, GPS, wireless communications, and graphic displays) would enable the delivery of custom advertising messages to individual wearers as they look at billboards and other signage. But this technology could be abused, according to the report. “Jihadist sympathizers could gather on the Capital Mall wearing iGlasses as they conduct a virtual meeting that overlays an avatar of Osama bin Laden on the real world steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Their reality, their world, their hate — all reinforced with the blending of the virtual and real worlds, with Reality+ overlays.”
But before you get too concerned about the dystopian future envisioned in the report, keep in mind the authors also mention Barbie Girls and Club Penguin — online forums for children — as examples of “quickly growing” virtual worlds.