“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” (John le Carré, The Looking Glass War, 1965)
Watching the response within Second Life to the revelation that the NSA, GCHQ, and possibly other agencies, have been “spying” upon residents within the virtual world, apparently at the suggestion of Linden Lab itself, has been an interesting experience. I’d characterize the general tenor of the reaction as muted.
It has been discussed, of course. The Second Life Forums had a few threads on the subject the day that the news broke, here, and here, and here, but none developed into very much. Overall, Ciaran Laval (in a post that does, however, feature some good discussion about privacy issues and social media) probably sums up the response best when he comments that the “recent fuss about The NSA and GCHQ allegedly spying on Second Life users largely made me go ‘meh.'”
The reaction of Honour McMillan (“duh”) was somewhat similar. SLUniverse featured a thread that achieved 203 posts before quietly spluttering to an end (by way of contrast, a thread on Ann-Marie Otoole’s auto-vehicles begun a few months earlier garnered 588 posts). New World Notes had three stories, including an Apologia from Hamlet Au for Cory Ondrejka that would do a medieval casuist proud: he’s pretty sure, on reflection, that this was (probably) all done for the good of Second Life, and, really, those of us who love the platform as he does actually owe the former Linden a debt of thanks. Probably the most detailed and interesting response was by Inara Pey, who usefully focused somewhat more on data-mining angle than did most.
I come to this story late in the game myself, and so I don’t feel the need, at this point, to say very much about the privacy and security aspects of these revelations. It’s not that am indifferent to this news; far from it, in fact. But others have already said a great deal about it, and a few have even articulated perspectives not dissimilar to my own. Suffice it to say that I am outraged, and so forth, but that what I actually find most illuminating is the lack of noise from residents. The shelf life of these revelations has apparently expired, and we seem to have established collectively that we simply don’t care that much that the company behind this supposedly “libertarian” platform has no problems at all in cooperating with government spooks. While Microsoft, Google, and others have expressed their discomfort (quite possibly disingenuously) with the NSA’s activities, Linden Lab’s silence on the subject understandably reflects the general attitude of its customers: “Meh.”
There is, however, another interesting side to this story that I want to explore for a few minutes.
I’d like to ask: what does it actually mean to “spy” on virtual people?
There is, of course, a great deal of humour to be mined from the idea that spies have been checking up on activities in virtual and gaming worlds; as Honour McMillan cracks, “It would be fun, though, to see the files they’ve collected on furries and vampires and Tinies.” Suck jokes implicitly invoke an important question, however. What kind of “intelligence” can really be harvested from a virtual world?
One assumes that the point of “spying” is to probe beneath surfaces, to “unmask” secrets and hidden threats. Why then would spies consciously choose to conduct operations in the one place where masks and false appearances are not merely the norm, but the actual raison d’être? Why focus efforts on the “Wonderland” side of the Looking Glass, rather than upon the warm carbon-based operators behind the screens and keyboards? It seems a perverse way to arrive at “secrets,” to say the least. And it implies a stronger, more direct identification of avatar with human user than many (and perhaps most) Second Life residents would probably concede. After all, one of the points of Second Life is putatively to “be” what we cannot be in “first life”: there is every chance that that gun-toting, tough-talking survivalist in-world may be run by a mild-mannered middle-class insurance salesman in the “real” world. Disconnected from the real world that is their proper focus, “spies” only dream that they are discovering truths here.
Or perhaps such incongruities are precisely to the point. I don’t know what kind of computerized analytics or psych manuals might be designed to translate the flotsam of Second Life weirdness into facts that might have some reasonable application in the real world, but surely our fantasies and our dreams — our second lives, however divorced from our reality they might be — do say something about us? In some ways, spying upon our avatars can be seen to represent a new and really innovative approach to intelligence-gathering and data mining: it is as though we have offered access to our dreams, to our psyche. And here, perhaps, our NSA and GCHQ spies are in more familiar territory. As the spy novelist John le Carré opined years ago in a 1989 interview originally granted to the Observer, and much cited since,
For decades to come the spy world will continue to be the collective couch where the subconscious of each nation is confessed, where its secret neuroses, paranoias, hatred, and fantasies are whispered to the microphones.
Second Life is often such a place; it can sometimes function as a sort of echo-chamber for whispered secrets. We wear our fantasies, and sometimes our fears, on our sleeves here, literally: they are embodied in the mesh clothing we purchase, and in the digitally-rendered avatars we inhabit. We confide them to strangers, in IMs, in chat, or on web sites such as SLsecret and The Whisper Wall. Virtual spies have no need for truth serums and waterboarding: we gladly betray ourselves and others here on a day basis.
And of course, even as we wander through sim after sim wearing our dreams and fantasies for all to see, we are also spying out those of others. McMillan (rightly) ridicules the notion that spies have secretly “infiltrated” Second Life, noting that “It’s not like avatars have to wear a mask to conceal their identity.” Residents, no less than the spies who observe them, are incognito here. But we can also reverse the logic of this statement, for being incognito ourselves empowers us, like spies, to pry into the secrets of our fellow residents.
Sometimes this is played out in a creepily literal way: when I was researching this post, an in-world search turned up no examples of “secret agent role playing” in Second Life, but it posted an enormous number of “hits” for “spy” products for sale that will mine IP addresses and secretly monitor chat streams from a distance. And, of course, for every avatar who posts on sites like SLsecret or The Whisper Wall, there are dozens who flock to read them. Perhaps this is why the grid-wide reaction to the NSA revelations has been so understated: in a world that is already buzzing with digital surveillance (for such, after all, is quite literally what monitoring public chat is), one more ear to the wall makes little difference.
Undoubtedly, our motivations in seeking out this kind of intimate knowledge of our fellow residents springs from rather different motivations than those that bring the spies of the NSA to Second Life. The frisson of voyeurism is probably part of the appeal. So, perhaps, is the illusion of connection that such knowledge might bring: a world inhabited entirely by beings embodied in code can sometimes seem a lonely place. But if it is true that spies can only dream, so it is equally true, in Second Life, that dreamers can, and do, spy.