According to newly disclosed classified documents, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other American and British government personnel have been playing online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life to look for terroristic activity. An initial news report, released jointly this week by ProPublica, the Guardian, and the New York Times, states that the classified documents were part of the recent leak by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia earlier this year under accusations of espionage.
The leaked documents outline a history of in-game spying that dates back to 2006 and includes not only games like WoW and Second Life, but also Xbox Live. Using these platforms, government spies created accounts and attempted to recruit informants, all the while collecting data from their communications. A spokesman for Blizzard told ProPublica that “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” and a Microsoft representative gave a similar message to Polygon.
In the mid-2000s, the NSA and CIA began to fear that terrorist groups would take advantage of the anonymity and communication channels offered by online games, and consequently deemed the virtual space a potential hideout. The lengthy leaked document, marked “Top Secret,” includes the following:
We know that terrorists use many feature-rich Internet communications media for operational purposes such as email, VoIP, chat, proxies, and web forums and it is highly likely that they will be making wide use of the many communications features offered by Games and Virtual Environments by 2010.
Peter W. Singer, author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, argues that video games make for poor hideouts, as game developers routinely employ profit-driven tracking.
For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar.
When Edward Snowden’s leak went viral this summer, many gamers were concerned about what NSA spying might mean for playing games, especially in light of Microsoft’s now-rescinded decision to make its Xbox One console “always online.” This news confirms that the government has indeed turned to video game spying.