If you play on World of Warcraft, Second Life, or even Xbox Live, you could be talking to a spy in in-game chat.
Earlier this month, former National Security Association (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that revealed that the FBI, CIA, and British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) have all secretly been spying on gamers in these online systems.
A part of NSA’s documents called online gaming a “target-rich communications network” where terrorists could communicate “in plain sight.”
Because of the millions of players accessing these networks, the NSA claims that MMOs and online gaming are an easy location for real-life threats to swap information. They’re also concerned that players on a network like Xbox Live would be able to virtually train themselves on weapons and arms, and the agencies claim that spying will take down these potential targets.
For example, the leaked documents describe how GCHQ, by spying on virtual worlds, was able to take down a crime ring selling stolen credit card information online. The agency also claims it will be easier to identify “meet-ups” in online games between avatars, who are in real life trying to recruit scientists, engineers, and other types of foreign intelligence operatives.
However, none of the leaked documents, described in conjunction by The New York Times, The Guardian, and ProPublica, mentioned anything about actual terrorists being thwarted by the online surveillance efforts.
In fact, one of the main problems these agencies are dealing with isn’t terrorists; it’s each other. ProPublica reported that the NSA, FBI, CIA, and GCHQ may have over-committed resources, because so many agents were playing video games for their spying duties that they kept running into each other in-game. The agencies had to establish a “deconfliction” group to make sure spies working for the same team wouldn’t mingle and spy on each other.
Initial reports about the documents don’t indicate how these spy agencies were able to get a hold of gamer information or how much information was shared/observed. A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment, which runs World of Warcraft, said that if there was any surveillance, “it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”
Microsoft failed to respond to media inquiries after the document leaks, but just the week before this happened, Microsoft had announced efforts to strengthen encryption to push back against “government snooping.” They’d also just joined powerhouse companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple in issuing a public statement to the world’s governments to rein in their online surveillance.
Not all security experts are on board with these agencies’ actions.
British security analyst Graham Cluely questioned the practicality of spies floating around online networks to try to find something, and argued that almost any type of communication could be a potential “threat.”
“Why aren’t they also snooping — maybe they are! — on the chess app I have on my smartphone? Perhaps every time I mess up my Dutch Stonewall defence it’s not really an indication that I’m a lousy chess student, but instead a coded message for my opponent to launch an attack on SCADA systems in the Netherlands?”
In the meantime, online gamers have been making jokes that they’d like to play video games for their jobs, and that the NSA is ultimately just wasting its time.
What do you think about this report about the NSA and other agencies spying on online gamers?