Another day, another eye-opening Edward Snowden revelation, but this time we had to laugh! The NSA, along with their British GHCQ sidekicks, have been creating virtual characters in the World of Warcraft and Second Life online games, using their digital avatars to snoop around and try to recruit informers, while operatives collected voice and text chat data, harvested metadata, and monitored the games’ forums. Other games networks were also targeted, including Microsoft’s Xbox Live.
World of Warcraft
The story was joint released today by The Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica, and is based on documents obtained by our favorite NSA-fighting superhero, Mr Snowden. They show that in 2008 the NSA and GHCQ considered the massively popular MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW) to be ‘an opportunity!’ to spy on a ‘target-rich communication network’ where potential terrorists could ‘hide in plain sight’, while in 2007 Second Life was somewhat bizarrely seen as a kind of zoo in which foreigners could be studied for ‘the opportunity to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviours of non-Americans through observation, without leaving US soil’.
The justification for this behavior was that ‘terrorists use online games – but perhaps not for their amusement. They are suspected of using them to communicate secretly and to transfer funds,’ despite the fact there was no evidence terrorists did any such thing. After a year of snooping it had been determined that some email, IP addresses etc. were liked to suspected terrorists,
‘Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors … have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [games and virtual environments]. Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah, and Hamas members.’
However not only does this fail to show that terrorists were using online game spaces to plot bad things, but it also failed to prove that it was the suspects themselves who were using the computers for gaming rather than other clients of an internet café, or children who shared use of the computer for a spot of WoW fun!
Despite the spy agencies’ enthusiasm for potential terrorist uses of virtual worlds, W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, and an author of ‘Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know’ has expressed serious doubts over their usefulness for such activities, ‘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’. Unsurprisingly no terrorist plots have been uncovered, although a single instance of taking down a stolen credit card trading operation is recorded.
An interesting aspect which was not addressed in the reports is how the NSA determined that anonymous avatars were not in fact US citizens, for which they would legally require approval from a US secret court, although the most bizarre revelation is that so many spies from different agencies were “working” as avatars in Second Life, that a separate ‘declonfliction’ group was needed to prevent them tripping each other over…
Well, you have to laugh (or else you’ll cry)…