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 Guardian reports:

"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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The Cellular Industry’s Clash Over the Movement to Remake Networks

The wireless industry is divided on Open RAN’s goal to make network components interoperable

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Photo: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

We've all been told that 5G wireless is going to deliver amazing capabilities and services. But it won't come cheap. When all is said and done, 5G will cost almost US $1 trillion to deploy over the next half decade. That enormous expense will be borne mostly by network operators, companies like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and dozens more around the world that provide cellular service to their customers. Facing such an immense cost, these operators asked a very reasonable question: How can we make this cheaper and more flexible?

Their answer: Make it possible to mix and match network components from different companies, with the goal of fostering more competition and driving down prices. At the same time, they sparked a schism within the industry over how wireless networks should be built. Their opponents—and sometimes begrudging partners—are the handful of telecom-equipment vendors capable of providing the hardware the network operators have been buying and deploying for years.

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