The NSA has been secretly using online video games to spy and recruit informants, according to the latest Snowden leaks:
American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents. Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels.
The agencies also have targeted the XBox Live network, which has nearly 50 million users. Peter Suderman collects some eye-opening details from the report, filed jointly by the NYT, the Guardian, and ProPublica:
US defense forces created mobile video games designed to spy on users. “The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies – including an obscure digital media business based in Prague – to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones, according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.”
In-game communications were subject to mass collection. “One document says that while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications.”
The government spent millions of dollars on video game behavior research to reach really, really obvious conclusions. “A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found ‘younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,’ such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.”
One thing the agencies didn’t do – prevent any terrorist attacks: