Newly released documents suggest that western spy agencies have infiltrated the online fantasy game World of Warcraft, fearing that terrorists or criminal networks use it to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks.
The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Online games might be innocuous, a top-secret 2008 NSA document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity” another NSA document declared the same year.
Games “are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players’ identity and activity is tracked,” said Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution. “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.”
American company Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, said that neither the NSA nor its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, had received permission to gather intelligence in its game.
“We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” a Blizzard Entertainment spokesman said. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”
These latest spying activities, which also included Microsoft Xbox Live, raise serious privacy concerns. It’s not clear exactly how the spy agencies got access to gamers’ data or communications, how many players have been monitored or whether Americans’ communications or activities were captured.
A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to comment, and so did Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, another online game targeted by spies.
Online games have become enormously popular, drawing tens of millions of people worldwide, from children to pensioners. The games rely on lifelike graphics, virtual monies, and the possibility to speak to other players in real time.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that intelligence and law officials have taken their activities to the online realm. Many gamers merge their virtual and real worlds by spending a vast amount of time online and making close friends in real life.
Reportedly, so many spies were hunting around in Second Life that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions. It could have been wise to divide Big Daddy’s 80s Club, NekoZone Central, Club Carnage, and Hollywood Airport between them for efficiency.