Report: NSA spying on virtual worlds, online games (Update)

Dec 09, 2013 by Raphael Satter
In this Friday, June 21, 2013, file photo, legendary "WarCraft 3" player, Manuel "Grubby" Schenkhuizen practices on a player vs. player match inside a special "isolation booth," as eight of the world's best "StarCraft II" video game players train at the Red Bull Training Grounds, at Red Bull North America headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. American and British intelligence operations have been spying on gamers across the world, media outlets reported Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, saying that the world's most powerful espionage agencies sent undercover agents into virtual universes to monitor activity in online fantasy games such as "World of Warcraft." (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

American and British intelligence operations have been spying on gamers across the world, media outlets reported, saying that the world's most powerful espionage agencies sent undercover agents into virtual universes to monitor activity in online fantasy games such as "World of Warcraft."

Stories carried Monday by The New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica said U.S. and U.K. spies have spent years trawling online games for terrorists or informants. The stories, based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, offer an unusual take on America's world-spanning surveillance campaign, suggesting that even the fantasy worlds popular with children, teens, and escapists of all ages aren't beyond the attention of the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ.

Virtual universes like "World of Warcraft" can be massively popular, drawing in millions of players who log months' worth of real-world time competing with other players for online glory, virtual treasure, and magical loot. At its height, "World of Warcraft" boasted some 12 million paying subscribers, more than the population of Greece. Other virtual worlds, like Linden Labs' "Second Life" or the various games hosted by Microsoft's Xbox—home to the popular science fiction-themed shoot-em-up "Halo"—host millions more.

Spy agencies have long worried that such games serve as a good cover for terrorists or other evildoers who could use in-game messaging systems to swap information. In one of the documents cited Monday by media outlets, the NSA warned that the games could give intelligence targets a place to "hide in plain sight."

Linden Labs and Microsoft Inc. did not immediately return messages seeking comment. In a statement, Blizzard Entertainment said that it is "unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."

Microsoft issued a similar statement, saying it is "not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent."

The 82-page-document, published on The New York Times' website, also noted that opponents could use video games to recruit other users or carry out virtual weapons training—pointing to the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers as examples of terrorists who had used flight simulation software to hone their skills.

Important details—such as how the agencies secured access to gamers' data, how many players' information was compromised, or whether Americans were swept up in the spying—were not clear, the Times and ProPublica said, but the reports point to a determined effort to infiltrate a world many people associate with adolescents and shut-ins.

At the request of GCHQ, the NSA began extracting "World of Warcraft" data from its global intelligence haul, trying to tie specific accounts and characters to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts, the Guardian reported. Intelligence on the fantasy world could eventually translate to real-world espionage success, one of the documents suggested, noting that "World of Warcraft" subscribers included "telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military and other intelligence agencies."

"World of Warcraft" wasn't the only target. Another memo noted that GCHQ had "successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live." Meanwhile, so many U.S. spies were roaming around "Second Life" that a special "deconfliction" unit was set up to prevent them from stepping on each other's toes.

Blizzard Entertainment is part of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Activision Blizzard Inc.

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kochevnik
1 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
"pointing to the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers as examples of terrorists who had used flight simulation software to hone their skills"

Any spy agency referring to 11Sep2001 as justification for their attacks is instantly discredited. They may speak of UFO attacks or WMD in Iraq or Operation Northwoods
Moebius
1 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
I've wondered if private conversations between 2 characters in World of Warcraft could be intercepted by an outside agency and listened to. It seemed to me to be a good way to have private remote conversations with someone. Useful for spies or the mafia and such. It would depend on how voice and text are exchanged in an online game.

baudrunner
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 09, 2013
It's a waste of time, if you ask me. Real terrorists have preferred couriering to electronic communication to pass critical information for decades because they have been very aware of the potential for getting caught using the internet, cell and satellite phones, etc. Here again, intelligence agencies are implementing the "just because we can, therefore we should" paradigm. Just another way to waste resources. Also, there is a huge disconnect between using flight simulator software which can be used on stand-alone computers and exchanging sensitive information via internet. I can't understand how they see the connection.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2013
"The director of the National Security Administration today told Congress that more than 50 potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted by two controversial programs tracking more than a billion phone calls and vast swaths of Internet data each day."

"Alexander said the full list of thwarted attacks will be provided to members of the House Intelligence committee Wednesday, but the intelligence community has decided to release only two of those events publicly.

"If we give all those out, we give all the secrets of how we're tracking down the terrorists as a community," Alexander said. "And we can't do that."

-You believe him? I believe him. We know there are many out there who want do us harm, and this has rarely happened. So far.

Security is inversely proportional to freedom.
baudrunner
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 09, 2013
Imagine how paranoid everybody would get if they legalized marijuana.
Ober
2.7 / 5 (7) Dec 09, 2013
In my mind, anything that limits terrorists ability to kill innocent civilians, is NOT A WASTE OF TIME!!! I really don't understand peoples fear about their freedom. Have the NSA spied on innocent people, probably. Have they arrested them or persecuted them in anyway, doubtful. Have they used the information to stop terrorist attacks, probably!!! Exactly what is the problem here? I don't give a rats arse who looks at what I do on the web, or read anything I type on the net. My freedom depends on the nations of Earth, to counter terrorism, so that myself and family don't happen to walk into the wrong shop one day and get blown up, for some nutjobs mistaken idealogy!!!

Snowden IS a criminal for revealing our tactics against terrorists. Why on Earth do people try to limit our strategies against terrorism? It's not as if the terrorists play by any rules. They even manage to mangle religion in their favour in order to kill innocent people. Insanity, yet people cry foul when we use SPYING.
Noumenon
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2013
Sounds like the NSA got busted for playing games while on the job and made up the terrorist excuse on the spot. Even if they're caught with three hookers, they could claim that they think they have a lead on a terrorist network,....
Noumenon
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 10, 2013
.... the only thing good that could come of this is another South Park episode;.... NSA agents tracking, in game, 11 year old nose pickers, who they think are a terrorist cell. It writes itself.