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.”
The information was given to some media recourses by none other than former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Leaked documents revealed that both the NSA and CIA were spying on online games.
According to the documents, the agencies have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which has more than 48 million players.
The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players. The NSA had so many agents inside the games that a special “de-confliction” group was set up to make sure they wouldn’t hamper each other’s operations.
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, says the Huff Post.
Since at least 2006the NSA and its sister British spy agency the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) have worried that terrorists might use online video games to secretly plan attacks, drive fundraising efforts or simply communicate on unmonitored channels.
Online games might seem innocuous, a top-secret 2008 N.S.A. document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity!” another 2008 N.S.A. document declared.
The GCHQ gathered 176,677 lines of data from Second Life. “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.”
However, there wasn’t any indication in those documents to prove that the surveillance ever foiled any terrorist plots, nor is there any clear evidence that terror groups were using the virtual communities to communicate as the intelligence agencies predicted.
The California-based producer of World of Warcraft said neither the NSA nor GCHQ had sought its permission to gather intelligence inside the game.
“We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., which makes World of Warcraft. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”
A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to comment. Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life and a former chief executive officer of Linden Lab, the game’s maker, declined to comment on the spying revelations. Current Linden executives did not respond to requests for comment, reports the NY Times.
According to the document, the NSA bosses took some persuading to launch the surveillance program in XboxLive, Second Life and World of Warcraft amid concerns that those behind the program only wanted to play games at their desks during working hours.