It’s rare that we source our WoW news from Edward Snowden – it’s tough to keep up with your raiding party when you’re on the run from the US government. But today, documents provided by the NSA whistleblower to The Guardian reveal the hilarious and the bizarre: that the NSA, and its British equivalent GCHQ, have reportedly deployed intelligence agents in online games included World of Warcraft and Second Life.
One NSA document, said to be written in 2008 and named Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, pointed out the potential for spies to observe the behaviour of international terrorist groups in-game without leaving the US. It allegedly warned of under-monitored games communities, where enemies of the state could “hide in plain sight” in a “target-rich communication network”.
In the years since, Snowden’s leaked information apparently shows, the intelligence agencies have built mass-information collection tools targeting Xbox Live, and planted agents in both Second Life and World of Warcraft. They’re even said to have attempted to recruit potential informants in-game.
An analyst’s alleged briefing notes suggest that between the NSA, FBI, CIA and Defense Humint Service, so many US intelligence agents were undercover in games that a ‘deconfliction’ group was set up to ensure their efforts weren’t duplicated – and that they weren’t accidentally spying on each other.
Games could be sifted for huge amounts of intelligence, the NSA document apparently suggested. The organisation envisioned foiled hacking attacks and unearthed target identifiers like profile photos. The anonymity offered by chat channels meant they needed to be tackled, the NSA paper reportedly insisted. Its author was said to be worried that in-game noticeboards could be used to share the web addresses of terrorist forums.
Despite the supposed report, none of Snowden’s documents present clear evidence that terror groups were indeed using games to communicate. By the end of 2008, however, GCHQ had apparently successfully followed a group of credit card fraudsters from their taken-down website to Second Life – where an agent in the field contacted an “avatar [game character] who helpfully volunteered information on the target group’s latest activities”.
In fact, the alleged NSA report suggests that GCHQ had a “vigorous effort” in place in WoW and Xbox Live even before the American intelligence outfits. At the British agency’s request, The Guardian write, the NSA had extracted WoW metadata from their reels of intelligence in an attempt to link “accounts, characters and guilds” to Islamic extremism and arms deals. A memo is said to have pointed out that WoW subscribers included “telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military and other intelligence agencies”.
The NSA refused to comment. GCHQ, for their part, refused to “confirm or deny” the reports – but offered the following: “All GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, 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.”
“We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” a Blizzard spokesperson told The Guardian. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”
Just wait until these guys catch onto Eve, and find it a haven of part-time virtual terrorism and espionage conducted by otherwise perfectly lovely people. WoW, though? That’s all pandas and poking mobs with sharp sticks, isn’t it?