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Spy Games: Spooks Infiltrated Online Games

U.S. and British spies cast their surveillance net over World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live

3 min read
Spy Games: Spooks Infiltrated Online Games
Blizzard Entertainment

“Tracking terrorists” may represent the best official excuse ever concocted for U.S. and British spies to play online games at work. But it remains unclear whether such cyber-sleuthing efforts have paid off, according to new revelations from the Snowden documents.

The Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica jointly reported on a U.S. National Security Agency document written in 2008 and titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments." The document revealed the NSA's strong interest in extending surveillance of potential terrorists and other intelligence targets to World of WarcraftSecond Life and Microsoft's Xbox Live service—online gaming spaces already being infiltrated by FBI, CIA, and Pentagon spies back in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, U.S. and U.K. spy agencies found that even terrorists and militant group members like to play popular online games. The Guardianreports:

"Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors and … have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [games and virtual environments]," the document notes. "Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah, and Hamas members."

Second Life had so many FBI, CIA, and Pentagon spies roaming around in 2008 that the NSA proposed a joint advisory group to avoid any possible overlap or conflict between the various efforts. GCHQ, the British spy agency counterpart to the NSA, claimed the biggest success by helping British police shut down a crime ring that sold stolen credit card information in online games such as Second Life. The NSA document also described hopes of using intelligence targets' in-game communications to piece together a more complete picture of their social networks.

The 2008 document may serve best as a glimpse of the intelligence community's fascination with the popular online games of the time. In 2008, Wired reported on a Pentagon researcher's imagined scenario of terrorists in World of Warcraft plotting to blow up the White House by communicating through cryptic code words, as well as how the U.S. Congress freaked out over the debunked possibility of money laundering in Second Life.

But the lone GCHQ victory in Second Life stood out as the only notable success in all the cyber-sleuthing efforts, according to the available documents. The NSA and its fellow spy networks did not even find concrete evidence that terrorists or other persons of interest were carrying out nefarious activities in online games.

Online games don't necessarily offer a significant advantage for terrorists or other people trying to meet and plot in secret—especially with so many other forms of online communication available.

"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," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, in an interview with the New York Times.

Still, a lack of success may not have deterred additional surveillance efforts in online gaming worlds. The 2008 NSA document hinted at an expansion of surveillance in online games rather than suggesting any cutbacks. Recent revelations about the NSA's broad surveillance over Internet communications and cellphone locations also depict the NSA as being interested in vacuuming up more data, not less.

"In terms of the broader context, I think this captures the 'Collect it all' spirit of NSA and GCHQ," said Justin Elliott, a reporter at ProPublica, in an online reader chat session. "Large numbers of people started to migrate to these online games, so the agencies went there too."

If anything, the NSA and its counterparts may have only shifted their surveillance efforts in terms of which online games have become more popular in recent years. Second Life never caught on as a mainstream game despite serving as a poster boy of sorts for massively-multiplayer online games, and World of Warcraft has seen its number of players slip from a height of 12 million to about 7.7 million players.

Microsoft and Second Life's Linden Labs declined to comment on the latest revelations of NSA interest in their online gaming services and games. But World of Warcraft's Blizzard Entertainment denied having cooperated with any spy agencies in surveillance efforts on their players. Whether that explanation will satisfy World of Warcraft players remains to be seen.

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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