Report: NSA, CIA Spying in Online Games Like World of Warcraft
Big brother really is everywhere and going places even George Orwell didn’t imagine — places like Azeroth.
A detailed story reported in partnership by ProPublica, The New York Times, and The Guardian reveals that American and British spy agencies have been engaged in a massive surveillance operation of online games like World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Microsoft’s entire Xbox Live network since 2007. The spying became so extensive, with so many CIA, FBI, and Pentagon spies in Second Life, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to help steer agents away from other agents.
The information was taken from a recently disclosed 82-page top secret NSA document on games and virtual worlds, and it’s quite the read. Fearing terrorist and criminal networks were using online games to communicate, move money, and plot attacks “by hiding in plain sight,” the government agencies fully infiltrated some of the world’s biggest games, creating gaming alter egos they hoped to use to fool the bad guys.
Just one problem: the bad guys were, almost entirely, of the fictional, green-skinned variety. “The documents do not cite any counter-terrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations,” ProPublica writes. And according to Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, terror groups use far more effective, easier methods to keep their communications secret than pretending to play World of Warcraft.
However, the documents do state that numerous “engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives” were found to be World of Warcraft players, and intelligence agents used gaming not just to spy, but to recruit agents. The agencies believed in the operation to such an extent that they actually created their own mobile games, which were designed specifically to spy on players.
Microsoft and Blizzard said they were never contacted by the intelligence agencies seeking permission to spy, so it’s highly likely the infamous secret intelligence court greenlit what was, prior to the Patriot Act, illegal surveillance. Those privacy concerns about the NSA using your Xbox One Kinect to watch you don’t sound so crazy anymore.
Not long ago, the idea of such spying was considered the realm of tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists. Now it’s all too real. If you’re communicating digitally in any form, including in a videogame, the government is listening.