The latest reveal about the inner workings of the National Security Agency: the American agency, partnered with Britain's spies, has been gathering communications and posting undercover agents in the World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as vacuuming chatter from Microsoft's XBox Live. The news was revealed by a partnership between the Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica, and came out of the same trove of documents that Edward Snowden provided.
At nine years old, the World of Warcraft held, at its peak, roughly 12 million subscribers. XBox Live, the online matchmaking and chatting service tied to Microsoft's XBox, handles 48 million gamers. With such vast numbers of people meeting in relative anonymity, the NSA worried that they were using these online communication tools to plan terrorist or criminal plots, in addition to raids. Attempts to sap information from virtual worlds has been going on since at least 2008, says the Guardian.
The news that the U.S. wanted to spy on virtual worlds is not entirely new, however. Back in 2008, Wired reported on the Reynard Project, a data-mining effort to filter gamers' communications and flag suspicious behavior. Again in 2008, Noah Shachtman wrote for Wired's Danger Room about the military's worries that terrorists might be using Azeroth, the world in which World of Warcraft takes place, as a meeting place.
After running through the Pentagon's awkward example of how people could potentially plan real life plots using in-game code, Shachtman gave the intelligence community some joking advice: “spies will have to spend more time in virtual worlds like WoW, if they want to have a hope of keeping tabs on what goes on inside ‘em. Which means, some day soon, we might find secret agents in World of Warcraft, along with the druids and orcs and night elves.” According to the documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA seems to have taken this advice.
Based on the leaked documents, says the New York Times, all of that snooping around other worlds does not seem to have paid off:
The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts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.
The British GCHQ, says the Guardian, used information collected in Second Life to tackle a stolen credit card ring.
The reveal raises privacy concerns, as neither Blizzard (Warcraft) nor Linden Labs (Second Life) nor Microsoft said they are aware of any such spying. But, back in 2008, Shachtman's explored why the spies would be so set on gamers:
Steven Aftergood, the Federation of the American Scientists analyst who’s been following the intelligence community for years, wonders how realistic these sorts of scenarios are, really. "This concern is out there. But it has to be viewed in context. It’s the job of intelligence agencies to anticipate threats and counter them. With that orientation, they’re always going to give more weight to a particular scenario than an objective analysis would allow," he tells Danger Room. "Could terrorists use Second Life? Sure, they can use anything. But is it a significant augmentation? That’s not obvious. It’s a scenario that an intelligence officer is duty-bound to consider. That’s all."
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