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Geek Girl Report: Playing Video Games To Combat Real World Terrorism? NSA Reportedly Spying On World of Warcraft Players

Sean Gallup, Getty Images

If you’ve ever played World of Warcraft, you already know there’s plenty to content with in the lands of Azeroth. You’ve got orcs, blood elves, trolls, goblins, and even…NSA agents? Yes, as stupid as it sounds, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA and it’s British counterpart the GCHQ have reportedly been spying on players of online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as games being played over XBox Live.

The agencies, the documents show, have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which has more than 48 million players. Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games’ tech-friendly users.

Online gaming is big business, attracting tens of millions of users worldwide who inhabit their digital worlds as make-believe characters, living and competing with the avatars of other players. What the intelligence agencies feared, however, was that among these clans of elves and goblins, terrorists were lurking.

The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving games communities under-monitored, describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.

Games, the analyst wrote, “are an opportunity!”. According to the briefing notes, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other.

If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people’s social networks through “buddylists and interaction”, to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.

The documents do not indicate what kind of information these agencies might have collected. So far, the NSA, Microsoft and the creators of Second Life declined to comment on the situation. However, Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft, said that they had not been approached by either organization for permission to monitor players, and that they were “unaware of any surveillance” taking place in their games.

Before I start making fun of them, I will say that I can understand the concern. As the article says, online gaming does offer a massive network for millions of people to connect with each other almost instantly. World of Warcraft alone has over seven million subscribers all over the world. It wouldn’t be too far out of the question to suspect somebody could be conducting some illegal activity under the guise of an avatar. So yeah, the possibility is there, but is it a big enough threat for the NSA to go undercover and monitor WoW players? Absolutely not.

Take a closer look at what these reports actually say: these organizations are saying games are an opportunity for terrorist activity and that the bad guys could be using these networks for illicit activity. It doesn’t say that they actually have used or are using video games for terrorism. If either organization had some concrete, undeniable hard proof that terrorists have or are using video games for terrorism, we might be having a different conversation right now. But at this point, they’re just acting on speculation and what-ifs. Especially when you take into account that they’ve allegedly been doing this since 2007 and they still haven’t uncovered anything remotely resembling a terrorist group hiding out in Azeroth somewhere.

At this point, I think it’s more of an excuse for the NSA to get away with playing video games at work. In fact, this is probably your only time you can say to your boss, “I’m going to play video games on the clock and fight terrorism.” and not be laughed at or fired on the spot. Besides, if the NSA really were to go so far as monitoring the in-game interaction and forum posts of some of these players, I think they’d realize very quickly that they’re just wasting their time.

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