Darlene Storm

Online gaming surveillance: So many NSA & CIA spies, they were spying on each other

December 09, 2013 11:52 AM EST

If you are fortunate enough to love your job, then it really doesn’t seem much like work; especially if your work allowed you to spend all your time gaming. But does that give intelligence agencies the right to inflate the online gaming terrorist threat so spies could keep playing as their job?Online gaming dragnet surveillance by intelligence agency spies

After reviewing documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the Guardian reported on NSA and GCHQ turning their secret surveillance efforts to the online gaming world. “The agencies, the documents show, have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which has more than 48 million players. Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games' tech-friendly users.”

We’ve known since 2011 that intelligence agencies were hunting for terrorists in World of Warcraft and FBI agents were searching WoW for potential "gold famers." Later in 2011, we learned via leaked intelligence reports that criminal elements were supposedly using Xbox and PS3 in order to go undetected by the CIA and NSA as the thugs recruited and planned all manner of chaos. But in light of the documents obtained by the Guardian, there were so many U.S. and British spies that online gamers likely couldn’t avoid having played with them.

A top-secret 2008 NSA document warned that online games might seem innocent, 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 2008 NSA document declared.

One NSA document seems to insist that “if properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people's social networks through ‘buddylists and interaction’, to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.”Online gaming surveillance by spies hunting for terrorists

ProPublica added:

But for all their enthusiasm — so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat. 

To devote so many spies to the online gaming terrorism threat, then there surely was great success in catching terrorists? But actually there was not. The New York Times, which also published the story in partnership with the Guardian and ProPublica, added:

The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.

But hey, don’t let facts get in the way of a good time while working on surveillance, aka invading the privacy of online gamers by “collecting data and contents of communications between players.” Microsoft opted to give no comment to help shed light on how agencies got access to Microsoft’s Xbox Live “gamers’ data or communications.” The leaked documents didn’t explain “how many players may have been monitored or whether Americans’ communications or activities were captured.” The founder of Second Life also refused to comment.

"We are unaware of any surveillance taking place," said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment, which makes World of Warcraft. "If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."

In other secret documents that support spying in virtual worlds, NSA and GCHQ agents claim that targets of interest play World of Warcraft and Second Life and such spying “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” Another document from 2007 revealed a SAIC “lucrative contract” with the CIA. The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command has been working on such online gaming surveillance since at least 2006.

If you are a gamer, then you probably realize hunting for terrorists this way is a complete waste of time. Is there anyone that ever had a terrorist attempt to recruit you while you were gaming? If someone was doing the recruiting, then it might have been intelligence agencies trying to flip people into informants.

The chain of thought that believes the online gaming world is full of terrorists plotting evil is as ridiculous as violent video games being blamed as the cause for mass shooting. Millions upon millions upon millions of us are gamers, and if video games actually were to blame for mass shootings, then there would be thousands of real life killing sprees. There’s not because video games are not the reason mentally ill people snap and take their first person shooter experience into the real world. There’s also no proof that terrorists and criminals use online gaming to plan real-world chaos. Not that we should be happy about online gaming dragnet surveillance, but it’s not hard to see why spies would not want to give up a job that allows them to play games for work.