The U.S. Government is More Wired than Ever. But Is It Secure?

PH2008121903097 Over the past few years, the U.S. government has led the way in integrating virtual world technology in to the physical workspace.

From the Department of Energy to the Marines, government is a major consumer of cutting-edge virtual world and simulation technology. But is Uncle Sam getting too dependent on virtual platforms?

Pixels and Policy takes a look at our government's avatar addiction, and the potential downsides of the habit.


Your Life, Online

Increasing numbers of employees are finding that they spend not only their free time cruising virtual worlds like Warcraft, but actually do significant amounts of office work through virtual environments.

The military is a prime example: Many soldiers have active accounts with games like America's Army and XBox Live, while during the workday they plan real battles in Second Life and other virtual software.

One soldier even used his skill at XBox flight simulators to land a job as a drone pilot trainer – all at the tender age of 19. The line between virtual gaming and real life is falling quicker than ever, and the coming merger opens up serious questions about just how big a role virtual worlds (both work and play) should have in our daily lives.

Goverment Computer News makes an interesting observation about the role of Second Life in government work, especially weather modeling for emergency response organizations:

BBN has been investigating the possibility of using Second Life environments that could be rapidly reconfigured to mirror “geo-typical terrain” in Afghanistan for planning or practicing operations there in the virtual world.

 In a tutorial on the 3-D Internet, Michael Macedonia, vice president and general manager for federal systems at Forterra Systems, said alternatives include his own firm’s Olive software, Metaverse, OpenSim, and Croquet, each of which provides capabilities suited to different types of projects.

It may sound like the ramblings of a techno-optimist, but do the math. The U.S. Army is funding an expensive Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge in order to find the best platform for logistics modeling and combat training.

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to use Second Life to run simulations of potential terror attacks on major U.S. landmarks. Some of the most sensitive projects the government operates are moving to the Metaverse.

On its own, the government's move to the 21st Century is a great thing. Moving to electronic conferencing and simulation reduces travel fees and expenses related to formerly real-world activities. Developing virtual world technology in formerly paper-and-pencil departments also encourages employees to look at problems in new ways, promoting a sense of independence a brick-and-mortar office can't stoke.

Endorsing technology like Second Life for military simulations also creates a guaranteed market for future Metaverse innovators – a powerful engine for future technological breakthroughs that will almost certainly trickle down to the consumer market.

Controlling the Risks of Virtual Government Work

The government should be applauded for making these bold steps. But the widespread adoption of virtual work technology across so many diverse departments isn't without risk.

Government computers receive hacking attempts thousands of times a day. The Pentagon reported that their computers were targeted for attempted hacks over 80,000 times last year. This puts a huge emphasis on cybersecurity alongside cyberwork. 

Second Life Enterprise solves one of the other pressing problems of virtual world government work: The possibility that information may leak out to the general public, or that a restricted sim may fall victim to a glitch that allows the public inside.

By putting an entire set of Second Life regions behind a firewall, Linden Lab has essentially ensured their product will be compatible with high-security business operations. It's a clever move, and the gamble will pay off.

Ultimately, moving the workplace into the virtual world will be a learning experience for both government employees and their employer. Given the high-stakes research conducted in some of these virtual worlds, government would do well to establish a comprehensive training course for all employees moving their desk into the virtual world.