Whistleblower Edward Snowden has provided documents to The Guardian revealing that the NSA and UK sister agency GCHQ have undercover agents lurking on the Xbox Live network, World of Warcraft, Second Life and other virtual realms. Why? Because online gaming is big business, and it's possible that terrorists are lurking within those virtual realms, scheming. Infiltrating MMORPGs and other game networks is also a good way to recruit potential informants.
The NSA documents provided to The Guardian were written in 2008, indicating that NSA spies have lurked within these games for around five years. Titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," one document describes these game communities as a "target-rich communications network" where intelligence targets can "hide in plain sight." In fact, there are so many agents within these games that the NSA set up a "deconfliction" group to make sure the agents weren't spying on each other by accident.
The NSA document argues that if games are properly exploited, vast amounts of knowledge can be obtained. For instance, games could be used to build pictures of people's social networks through "buddylists and interaction," to obtain target identifiers like profile photos, and so on. There's also indication that NSA agents can extract communications from talk channels, participating in voice and video chats on the console networks.
"The documents contain no indication that the surveillance ever foiled any terrorist plots, nor is there any clear evidence that terror groups were using the virtual communities to communicate as the intelligence agencies predicted," The Guardian reports. The Guardian also admits that it's unclear how the agencies accessed the data or how many communications were collected. Even more, it's unclear how the NSA made sure it wasn't monitoring innocent civilians concealed behind their avatars.
When contacted by the Guardian, World of Warcraft developer Blizzard said it was unaware of any surveillance taking place, and if there was, then it was done without Blizzard's knowledge or permission. Microsoft declined to comment on the latest revelations, The Guardian reports, as did Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life and former CEO of Linden Lab, the game's operator. The NSA declined to talk as well.
"All GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the intelligence and security committee," a GCHQ rep told The Guardian.
At the request of the GCHQ, NSA began extracting World of Warcraft metadata back in 2008, and tried to link accounts, characters and guilds to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts. The agencies discovered that telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military and other intelligence agencies were active subscribers. Later on, the UK agency reported that it was successful in acquiring discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.
The NSA drama doesn't stop here. Head over to The Guardian for the full report.