NSA and GCHQ spying on MMO gamers?


Apparently intelligence agencies are watching our conversations in MMOs according to a recent report by ProPublica and The New York Times.

Based on classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, the report says that the NSA and its British counterpart, the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have “infiltrated” massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.

MMOs worry the NSA and GCHQ because these games have features common with how militants communicate – fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions.

They haven’t found much during their online sting other than credit card fraud:

By the end of 2008, according to one document, the British spy agency, known as GCHQ, had set up its “first operational deployment into Second Life” and had helped the police in London in cracking down on a crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information. The British spies running the effort, which was code-named “Operation Galician,” were aided by an informer using a digital avatar “who helpfully volunteered information on the target group’s latest activities.”

And “potential targets for recruitment”:

Still, the intelligence agencies found other benefits in infiltrating these online worlds. According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents.

OK, so maybe they have something here:

One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes. A British document from later that year said that GCHQ had “successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.”

On the other hand, how many times have punk kids created the swastika emblem in Call of Duty? I doubt they have any involvement with Nazism. Characters and guilds that relate to “Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing” with full intention of doing something malicious might be a bit of a stretch.

However, I do like their findings on one study:

It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.

No way! /sarcasm

And because no one will speculate when they’re told not to:

Those involved in the project were told little by their government patrons. According to Nick Yee, a Palo Alto researcher who worked on the effort, “We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government’s motivations and goals.”

Now I get the intelligence industry’s curiosity in MMOs. These games show a great example of how we, as humans, react to events that we normally wouldn’t encounter. Take the Corrupted Blood incident in World of Warcraft. The virtual plague caused a pandemic in the game. It caught the attention of epidemiologists for its implications of how human populations could react to a real-world zombie apocal..err.. epidemic.

But are terrorists using MMOs to communicate? I guess anything is possible but to access these virtual worlds you have to give the publisher or developer — who ever is handling accounts — your personal information for billing or support purposes. For anyone who doesn’t want to get caught, that’s a huge wrench in their plans.

My two cents anyway.

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