American intelligence feared that terrorists might create a 'virtual Osama Bin Laden' avatar to preach from beyond the grave for 'hundreds of years'.
According to a 2008 report for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it was thought that Bin Laden's archive of audio recordings could be used with 3D imaging tech to create a 'digital puppet' that could say or do anything its masters wanted.
The report also gave more details about how they worried terrorist networks might try to recruit new members on World of Warcraft and other video games.
Titled '3D Cyberspace Spillover: Where Virtual Worlds Get Real', it was recently published by Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert and researcher for the Federation of American Scientists, after a Freedom of Information request.
In the report, the 'virtual Bin Laden' idea is mentioned as one possible future scenario:
"Imagine that jihadist supporters create a detailed avatar of Usama bin Ladin and use his many voice recordings to animate the avatar for up-close virtual reality experiences that could be used to preach, convert, recruit, and propagate dogma to the media," the study said.ADVERTISEMENT
"The Bin Laden 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."
There appears to be no evidence that such a thing was ever attempted or taken seriously - something the report actually acknowledges:
"As of this report, there is little evidence that militant Islamist and jihadist groups have begun extensively exploiting the opportunities presented by virtual worlds. However, [...] they will likely soon seek to exploit newer virtual world technologies for recruiting, raising and transferring funds, training new recruits, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and planning attacks by using virtual representations of prospective targets."
These new horizons were rather discussed as a potential way the internet might be used to disseminate ideas. The report was specifically an attempt to use "outlandish" thinking.
Another idea mentioned is that terrorists might use Google Glass-style devices to hold a virtual protest on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
"Of course, this technology could also be abused [...] jihadist sympathizers could gather on the Capital Mall wearing iGlasses as they conduct a virtual meeting that overlays an avatar of Usama bin Ladin 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."
On the World of Warcraft fears, the report said:
"They will likely soon seek to exploit newer virtual world technologies for recruiting, raising and transferring funds, training new recruits, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, and planning attacks by using virtual representations of prospective targets."
The report also made reference to Club Penguin - a children's forum whose users are mostly under 10 years old, with the tagline "waddle around and meet new friends" - as one potential place the intelligence community might want to examine in the future.
Barbie World - a now defunct social network focused around dolls - was also referenced.
The report appears to tally to similar ideas reported in the New York Times in December, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
The report's conclusions explained that the aim was to understand the "transformational change" implicit in the growth of online worlds:
“This technology has the potential to be an agent for transformational change in our society, our economy, and our efforts to safeguard the homeland,” the report stated. “If virtual world technology enters the mainstream, criminals and US adversaries will find a way to exploit this technology for illegal and errant behavior.”
But maybe it's not so far fetched: some have pointed to the recent growth of the online hacker collective Anonymous, and its use of masked figures to deliver speeches and threats, of an example of how this might have worked.
The report also made some correct guesses at the future direction of online society. One of its key findings was that "within the next five to ten years a virtual world-based currency could become widely tender-able and freely convertible" - prefiguring the rise of Bitcoin.