First it was porn; now, it’s your video games.
The National Security Agency has been monitoring online games including World of Warcraft, Second Life and video games on Xbox Live, sometimes even using undercover agents disguised as trolls or orcs.
Since at least 2007, the NSA and its sister British spy agency the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) have worried that terrorists might use online video games to secretly plan attacks, drive fundraising efforts or simply communicate on unmonitored channels, according to the leaked documents (.PDF).
These online video game networks are opportunities for intelligence agencies to spy on terrorists, the documents warned, since they can act as “target-rich communications network” where criminals could “hide in plain sight.”
“Terrorists use online games — but perhaps not for their amusement,” an invitation to a secret internal meeting in 2007 noted. “They are suspected of using them to communicate secretly and to transfer funds.”
So the spy agencies built mass-collection capabilities to monitor gamers on the Xbox Live network and deployed undercover agents in both World of Warcraft and Second Life. The GCHQ boasted that it had “successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.”
The NSA started began attempts to link World of Warcraft metadata with real-life terrorists and arms dealers in 2008, noting that its players included telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military and other intelligence agencies. In other words, all very interesting targets for the NSA and GCHQ.
Agents also infiltrated the then-popular online roleplaying game Second Life, where undercover agents tried to recruit informants amid concerns that its unregulated economy could be used to launder money. Since the number of undercover agents was so high, per the leaked documents, the agencies involved — including the CIA and FBI — had to ensure they didn’t step on each other’s toes and pursue the same leads.
The GCHQ gathered 176,677 lines of data from Second LifeThe New York Times and ProPublica. “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.”
Blizzard Entertainment, the producer of World of Warcraft, denied granting permission to the NSA or the GCHQ to monitor its networks, the news organizations reported. Both Microsoft and Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, declined to comment.
The Xbox Live monitoring revelation comes a few months after critics expressed concerns about the new Kinect’s camera monitoring abilities and researchers proved that smart TVs like Samsung’s can be hacked remotely to spy on its owners.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.
Image: Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images