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U.S. and British Spies Secretly Snooped On Online Fantasy Games
December 9, 2013
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(Photo: Blizzard Entertainment/Associated Press)

American and British spies took their undercover surveillance operations to the realm of fantasy gaming, posing as characters in online worlds in a bid to nab criminals and suspected terror plotters, according to newly disclosed National Security Agency documents.

The two multiplayer online worlds specifically named in documents were Second Life and World of Warcraft.

The New York Times reported that the aim of the digital espionage effort was to uncover financial transactions or communications related to criminal- or terrorism-related activities.

The documents, titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," were disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, which shared them with the New York Times and the investigative non-profit project ProPublica.

Second Life is populated by about 1 million active users who interact with others in a virtual world using fantastical avatars. World of Warcraft is a role-playing strategy game with 7.7 million subscribers who send armies of beasts, elves and other characters into battle.

According to the newly disclosed 2008 U.S. NSA intelligence papers, British and American spy agencies infiltrated those virtual universes using digital personas. A key concern was that the games, as well as Microsoft's Xbox Live multiplayer service, which has 48 million subscribers, could be channels for anonymous terrorist communications. 

The espionage revelations raised privacy concerns among some gamers, who tweeted about the reports. Blizzard Entertainment, the developer behind World of Warcraft, said it was "unaware of any surveillance taking place," while the makers of Second Life declined to comment. A Microsoft spokesman also declined to comment to The Times about the spying revelations.

One document says a 2008 deployment in Second Life by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters helped London police bust up a crime ring that was selling stolen credit card information through the virtual world. But the Times reported that the documents don't mention any terrorist activities being foiled or any terrorists identified.

Cybersecurity expert Peter W. Singer, with the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution and the author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, doubted that terrorists would use video games as a channel for plotting attacks, given that players' identities are often tracked by gaming companies looking to make money.

“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,” he told the Times.

Via New York Times

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