Thomas Pynchon Could Have Met a Spy in the Virtual World Second Life

And here I thought virtual worlds were all about cybersex.
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A scene from Second Life's Syn City (YouTube)

If you've read Thomas Pynchon latest novel, Bleeding Edge, and played around in the virtual world Second Life, you will come away convinced that Pynchon spent time in SL

And today, a new document leaked by Edward Snowden and reported by ProPublica show that spies from the nation's intelligence apparatus also spent time in Second Life (and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft).

In fact, there were so many spies "hunting around in Second Life," the document noted, that "a 'deconfliction" group was needed to avoid collisions."

Second Life's chief technology officer, Cory Ondrejka, even gave a presentation at the NSA. (He's now the director of mobile engineering at Facebook.)

According to ProPublica, the spies were "created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players." In one case, GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, "vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications." They also, apparently, aided in the takedown of  a London-based "crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information." The investigation was helped by an informer inside the virtual world.

All of which sets up the intoxicating possibility that Thomas Pynchon could have been wandering the three-dimensional digital hinterlands when he encountered a CIA operative, perhaps in Second Life's Syn City, "an adults only realistic urban city inhabited by people who have come looking for a fresh start. From bikers to mafia to city workers, you will find a place to belong here—but beware as some things may not appear as they seem."

Man, and to think I thought realistic virtual worlds were all about cybersex! It turns out they were actually places where cyberwarriors and cybersleuths went to develop signals intelligence. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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