DHS, the government department responsible for protecting Americans from terrorism and major disasters at home, has expressed a deep interest in using virtual worlds to train first responders and disaster management officials.
Pixels and Policy takes a look at the proposed program below.
DHS Moves Quickly to Find a Policy Role for Virtual Worlds
The Department of Homeland Security made its interest in virtual worlds known in an August 25th request for information on the recently updated Federal Business Opportunities website. The announcement requested information that would lead to a "better understanding of virtual worlds," with a deadline of October 2.
Less than 20 days after the closure of the request, the Department sent a high-level director to London to discuss the vital necessity of defending virtual worlds as part of an overarching national cybersecurity initiative. On very public fronts, the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to bolster its cybersecurity initiatives by increasing its knowledge of virtual worlds.
There's a reason for this sudden government eye on virtual worlds. Cybersecurity remains a hot topic on Capitol Hill this year, with hearings in the Senate committees on Homeland Security, Commerce and Science, Small Business, and Armed Services. Government agencies from NASA to DHS are looking into the use of virtual worlds for a variety of public and internal services.
Of course, the deep interest the Department is showing in virtual worlds is not new. In May 2008, DHS contracted with Engineering and Computer Simulations to develop a "virtual classroom" for education and training of new recruits. But this initiative was small in scale. A year later, it appears DHS has a much bigger national security role planned for the Metaverse.
Training Responders and Saving Lives
DHS is tilling the soil in preparation for a large-scale move into virtual worlds as a training grounds for potential terrorist attacks on the American homeland. The techies at Visual Purple recently secured a DHS award for virtual education technology, and may find themselves among those partners called on to develop this large-scale project.
The idea itself is brilliant – in virtual environments, a building or stadium can be destroyed a thousand times at no expense. No one except those authorized will even be able to see it, lending a cloak of privacy to the emergency response techniques DHS wants to optimize.
The Department's request for information also specifies that it will involve other agencies in virtual planning. Online environments will allow dozens of law enforcement and emergency response officials from across the country to conference in one interactive test-run – a huge cost advantage in the expensive War on Terror.
By moving attack training into the virtual world, the Department of Homeland Security shows its willingness to use all tools to limit the damage a future attack may cause.
Until recently, the porous nature of virtual worlds served as a turn-off for agencies where secrecy remains paramount – the recent launch of Second Life's Enterprise software may well change that, providing secretive agencies the security fixes they need to run sensitive simulations and training seminars.