While you might fondly call the hell-raising inhabitants of online gaming haunts like DotA, Counter-Strike, and Xbox Live terrorists, the NSA and CIA both felt that certain online gaming communities are home to the real thing. So, they did what any good security agency would do, and started spying on bored gamers who are forever killing 10 rats and crafting epic gear.
The information was given to The Guardian by none other than former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Leaked documents revealed that both the NSA and CIA were spying on online games since 2006. Among the many online gaming communities, World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live were prime targets. It didn’t take long for the security agencies to target online gaming, as Xbox Live launched just four years earlier than that 2006 initiation date, followed by Second Life in 2003 and World of Warcraft in 2004. Online gaming communities are massive, and though they may seem like a harmless use of one’s time, they are indeed an easy, previously unmonitored way to communicate. Furthermore, the communities are filled to the brim with people, and the NSA felt that this large population and ease of communication made the virtual worlds rich with terrorist targets.
Perhaps unnervingly, the leaked documents did not reveal any indication that the spying uncovered any kind of terrorist activity. The information also did not divulge the quantity and type of data collected, or method employed by the agencies.
Blizzard, developer of WoW, denied any compliance to the surveillance, stating that if security agencies were spying on its gaming communities, it neither provided permission to do so, nor knew about it taking place. Microsoft, Linden Labs (developer of Second Life), and the NSA declined to comment, while the GCHQ — the NSA’s UK sister agency — simply stated that the agency follows strict legal guidelines, though did not comment on whether or not the spying took place. It also wasn’t clear what spurred the security agencies to target the world of online gaming, other than its potential as a communications tool. This did not help prove that employees of the agencies did not simply want to play online games for work.
Reportedly, the security agencies made contacts within the games, and were able to recruit at least one in-game informant who provided the agencies with data on a target group.
The document also claimed that terrorist groups created online games with the goal of member recruitment. One such game, reportedly created by Hezbollah – Special Forces 2 — was said to be a tool to recruit suicide martyrs. Furthermore, it seems that anti-terrorism units such as the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, created its own games with the express purpose of collecting data about gamers that would play them.
Of course, it does seem silly that members or terrorist groups would conduct serious business in the online gaming world when there are much more secure and convenient methods than, for instance, logging into World of Warcraft. Regardless, it is troubling to hear that your raid leader could be a government spy, or that a government security agency could tap into your Xbox One’s Kinect and literally see what you’re up to in the privacy of your own home. However, if terrorists are using Xbox Live to communicate, the Kinect — or even a standard headset — can be a boon to sussing out delicate information, by either identifying a target’s face, or isolating the headset’s audio.
If there’s any consolation, it’s that the agencies reportedly did not discover any nefarious dealings. So, rather than worrying about your Eve corporation being run by an actual terrorist (though his in-game business practices may already hint as much), you should just worry that there’s a small chance some government official can you see you playing games on your Xbox One with chip crumbs and cheese dust all over your tank top.