The United States National Security Agency’s (NSA) foreign surveillance program was revealed to have spied on online gaming communities such as "Second Life" and Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ:ATVI) "World of Warcraft" on Monday.
According to a joint report by the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica that was based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, American and British spies infiltrated the massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), gathering data and spying on millions of players around the world.
The documents, which were published online by ProPublica, detail a disturbing position taken on online gaming, with the NSA attempting to justify its spying practices by stating that online gaming communities are a potential “target-rich communication network.”
The first lines of the latest NSA documents read:
“Although online gaming may seem like an innocuous form of entertainment, when the basic features and capabilities are examined, it could potentially become a target-rich communication network.”
A look at the table of contents of the classified documents also indicates a disturbing position toward online gaming communities. Chapter titles reflect not only using online gaming communities for intelligence gathering, but for positioning online gaming as a propaganda platform.
One such title reads: “Chapter 1 – EXPLOITATION AND FUNCITON [sic] OF GAMES: AN INTERACTIVE INFLUENCE MEDIUM”
Chapter 3’s title reads: “PLAUSIBLE SCENARIOS OF THE USE OF GAMES IN TERRORIST ACTIVITIES”
The NSA’s views on online gaming are further reflected with chapter 5, “WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS VIRTUALLY”
Looking further into the NSA documents, intelligence agencies not only monitored MMORPGs, but first person shooter (FPS) games such as the U.S. Army’ own “America’s Army” game and flight simulator communities such as those based around Microsoft’s [(NASDAQ:MSFT)] Flight Simulator.”
In addition to being seen as an intelligence-gathering platform, U.S. intelligence agencies believed that the games could be used for much more:
“GVEs are an opportunity! We can use games for: CNE exploits, social network analysis, HUMINT targeting, ID tracking (photos, doc IDs), Sharing activities, geo-location of target, and collection of comms.” [sic]
Valve Software’s “Counter-Strike” multiplayer community, one of the most far-reaching PC games on the market, was one of the top first person shooters mentioned in the NSA document.
While spies from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Pentagon were infiltrating online communities such as “Second Life,” they may have inadvertently “inflated the threat,” according to the joint report published on ProPublica, NYTimes and the Guardian.
As for how successful the spying operations were, the joint report notes that none of the documents released “cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort.”
Video game experts interviewed by the NY Times also said it was unlikely that terrorist groups would use video games to communicate and plot terror threats.
The spying of online gaming communities even extended to Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming network. The British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, was able to “successfully infiltrate discussions between various Xbox Live users."
Despite the extensive spying activities by both U.S. and U.K. spy agencies, neither country obtained permission to spy on games such as “World of Warcraft,” according to ProPublica.
Take a look at the newly released NSA documents on ProPublica.