Spies like us?

Do you remember that moment when few weeks ago, while playing World of Warcraft, you planned to blow up the metro station? Or to create a network of terrorists? No? Aww, NSA agents are disappointed.

But..but…what is it about?

Let me explain. I am sure you know the name Edward Snowden. A man who released so many classified documents from governmental agencies focused on infiltration, that CIA and FBI will have hiccup for decades. Just while ago we saw The Guardian , New York Times and ProPublica releasing next batch of documents from Snowden’s collection. Documents referring to us – gamers.

Who? What? How?

Materials provided by Snowden prove, that since 2008 American NSA (National Security Agency) and British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) infiltrated the communities of players online. Users of Xbox Live (around 48 million people), World of Warcraft and Second Life were monitored. Basis for this was the document Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, published in 2008. 

We read in this document: “We know that terrorists use many feature-rich Internet communications media for operational purposes such as email, VoIP, chat, proxies, and Web forums and it is highly likely they will be making wide use of the many communications features offered by Games and Virtual Environments (GVE) by 2010 (…) The Sigint Enterprise needs to begin taking action now to plan for collection, processing, presentation and analysis of these communications.” The whole document is sour- sweet and can be found here.


Of course government agencies rushed happily to spy on gamers. Real agents hid behind avatars and looked for potential informants. Because there can be terrorists hidden between orcs and goblins. The darkest place is beneath the lamp so you have to spy, case closed. Maybe you were even able to talk to an agent, but I will disappoint you – it wasn’t agent Coulson. 

Sounds funny but agents tried to prove that some of the functions of the games can not only be used during terrorist attacks but also while preventing them. Take Second Life – it allows you to anonymously send text messages, it also has message boards which allow users to pass the messages.

As a fun fact: because games often use various systems of communication – chats, voice, communication platforms, cameras – government agencies had a chance to also collect biometric data about the users, along with details of their habits and customs. What a chance for agents! What about networks of users? Friends of friends? You can learn so much! At one point there were so many agents of various agencies infiltrating the gaming world, that they had to create a group coordinating actions of all agencies…

So many actions, a lot of successes probably?

What did the agents learn? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Terroristic actions ended up in gamers infecting other gamers with virtual plague , plotting on killing the main boss of different faction and winning someone else’s partner in Second Life. That’s it. Goblins turned out to be calmer than expected…

Pffft, much ado about nothing.

Really? This whole action is a farce. But it stops being one when we begin to realize that government agencies violated the privacy of the gamers. We don’t know how agents obtained the data of the players. According to Blizzard Entertainment spokesperson nobody from any government agency requested a permission to monitor the users:

We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.

Microsoft and creators of Second Life refused to comment. NSA fell silent as well. Spokesperson for GCHQ “can’t confirm or deny” anything, but claims that:

All GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.” (source

 Government agencies believe that terrorists use online games not to play, but to communicate and to pass the funds. According to the document quoted earlier. Terrorists from AlQueda, Hezbollah and Hamas plus Iranian nuclear scientists can be found among Taurens and Gnomes. And, of course, you can find Chinese hackers there as well, but we knew about it for years. In theory they are there, but agencies failed to prove it. Especially since they failed to link real IP addresses to their theories.

So – end of story?

No. Proving, that nothing can be found, didn’t stop the agencies from further infiltration of virtual worlds. Quite the opposite – agencies started to actively use games, including the “modems of exploitation” of Xbox Live and World of Warcraft. Thanks to GSHQ’s request NSA started to actively collect metadata of World of Warcraft to connect the accounts, characters and guilds with Islamic extremists and groups selling weapons. Further document was supposed to prove, that there are “engineers of communication, embassy drivers, scientists, military people and workers of various agencies” among subscribed people.

British agency didn’t stop at World of Warcraft: according to a note agents of GSHQ “successfully started a discussion between various players on Xbox Live platform.” In so called meantime FBI and CIA led the actions of secret agents within Second Life. Not that all those actions of all those agencies were unsuccessful – at the end of 2008 they managed to take down a website selling numbers of stolen credit cards and GSHQ was very proud to announce they successfully recruited and Avatar – informant in Second Life. Woohoo.

What now?

Yes, all those actions are one big absurd. However we can’t fully ignore the risk. There are games written especially to recruit people: there is US’ America’s Army, there is Special Forces 2 by Hezbollah. But those games aren’t based on Taurens and Elves and are clear about their goal. Of course, danger is real. But somehow I can’t believe that Iranian agents discuss a nuclear attack while fighting Garrosh. But maybe it is what matters for terrorists? “The darkest place is under the lamp?”

What matters is the fact, that government agencies showed how far they will go to get information about us. Because in reality this is the only thing they got and maybe this is what it was all about. We often forget that internet lives on its own and information we share with trusted – according to us – people, may get to wrong hands.

Or maybe it was about being able to play games while working and even getting paid for it.

One thing is for sure – NSA and GCHQ annoyed maaaaany people. Not only average gamers – internet companies and corporations joined the outcry. War on determining the borders of privacy has begun.

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