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Newest Leak Shows NSA, GCHQ Infiltrated World Of Warcraft, Second Life

from the on-the-internet,-no-one-knows-you're-an-octopus dept

Apparently, there’s nowhere our intelligence agencies won’t go in ostensibly in search of terrorists. The latest leak from Snowden, as published by ProPublica, New York Times and The Guardian, shows the NSA and GCHQ are actively infiltrating MMOs and other online gatherings in order to fight terrorism.

Not limiting their activities to the earthly realm, American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents.

Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels.

The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.

According to the document (from 2008), online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life are potentially “target-rich environments” in which suspected terrorists “hide in plain sight.” (And it’s not just MMOs. Xbox Live has apparently been swept up in the surveillance efforts as well.) Despite this assertion, the documents contain no evidence that any terrorists have been uncovered by agents and analysts. In fact, experts and developers of games like these have found no evidence that terrorists are using their services to communicate or recruit new members.

Once again, the efforts of the NSA and GCHQ seem to be focusing time and energy searching locations where terrorists would be least likely to be “hiding in plain sight,” much in the way that grabbing data from mainstream email services and social platforms is only going to find the most amateurish of wrongdoers.

Games “are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players’ identity and activity is tracked,” said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an author of “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “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.”

Not only is the effort highly inefficient, but it’s also highly redundant. As ProPublica points out, there are so many agents from the Pentagon, CIA and FBI chasing targets in virtual worlds that a “deconfliction” group was created just to avoid online “collisions.”

Blizzard, the developer behind World of Warcraft, has gone on record stating that if intelligence agencies are using the service to track terrorists, it hasn’t been informed or given its permission. Microsoft and Linden Lab (Second Life’s developer) declined to comment.

There may be a good reason Linden Lab isn’t issuing a statement. Its former CTO is an ex-military officer with top secret clearance.

In 2007, as the NSA and other intelligence agencies were beginning to explore virtual games, NSA officials met with the chief technology officer for the manufacturer of Second Life, the San Francisco-based Linden Lab. The executive, Cory Ondrejka, was a former Navy officer who had worked at the NSA with a top-secret security clearance.

He visited the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members over a brown bag lunch, according to an internal agency announcement. “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!” said the announcement. It added that virtual worlds gave the government the opportunity “to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil.”

GCHQ, in particular, has used Second Life to track down a crime ring selling stolen credit card information. While the use of these games in discovering and tracking terrorists still remains largely theoretical, GCHQ found the online games did offer one benefit:

According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents.

The NSA, on the other hand, seems to have found little more than evidence that terrorism suspects are largely like non-terrorists when they play online games — they do it for enjoyment.

One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes.

Whether or not these agencies are actually hunting down terrorists, one this is for certain: large amounts of communications are being caught in the surveillance nets.

One document says that while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications.

Not surprisingly, there’s also a profit motive tied into this infiltration of online games. SAIC, a government contractor specializing in surveillance systems (and building non-functional, incredibly expensive software), may have set this online surveillance in motion back in 2007.

In one 66-page document from 2007, part of the cache released by Mr. Snowden, the contracting giant SAIC promoted its ability to support “intelligence collection in the game space,” and warned that online games could be used by militant groups to recruit followers and could provide “terrorist organizations with a powerful platform to reach core target audiences.”

ProPublica notes that there’s nothing in the documents that suggests SAIC ended up with a contract (at that time) as a result of its self-promotion, but it does appear that SAIC (along with Lockheed Martin) won a multi-million dollar contract a couple of years later, shortly after it participated in a discussion about a proposed government study of the link between online and offline behavior in MMO gamers.

The question is how useful these infiltrations have been after a half-decade of use. The agencies have stated they feel these games could be used for communication and recruitment, but nothing has surfaced indicating the surveillance is effective. It largely seems to be another way to gather data, something the agencies already have too much of. If nothing else, GCHQ seems to be using it for a headhunting tool, but I’m not sure how many potential employees would be flattered to know they’ve been “scouted” by a questionable surveillance program. For now, it seems to be another case of the reach far exceeding the grasp, not that this lack of success ever seems to result in scaling back the “reach.”

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Companies: blizzard, linden lab, microsoft

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Comments on “Newest Leak Shows NSA, GCHQ Infiltrated World Of Warcraft, Second Life”

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FM Hilton (profile) says:

Playing games at work!

You know, I’d love to be employed by the government to go play games on the Internet while working. My present employer doesn’t allow it..gee whiz.

I know what I missed by not following up that employment interview with the FBI so long ago! Darn, what a fool I am!

But on the serious side-how many millions of dollars are we spending for the various agencies to play games all day in hopes of finding terrorists? Too many, and nothing has been gained from it.

I’d call it a waste of money and not very funny at all and another damned good reason to shut them all down.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: makes perfect sense

It only makes sense to people that don’t understand how the Internet works.

Oh, hey, guess what. Every WoW player in the world understands that their chats aren’t ‘private’.

If they are even the least decent WoW player, they will have add-ons installed…which gives the add-on dev access to anything you do in WoW.

It’s so easy to track conversations in WoW all you have to do is go to the forums and see the copypasta from in-game chats.

What a waste of resources.

out_of_the_blue says:

Who here has said teh internets is one giant spy grid?

Me. It’s not difficult: once you’ve got that basic premise figured out, then EVERY conceivable way and place to spy will be infested. — Including your precious Google. Think NSA has overlooked the possibilities with Google?

Google defenders are much like NSA defenders: basically blind to privacy, just insist over objections to being spied on: “we’re only helping and you should be grateful!”.

06:16:01[h-257-1] [ This suppresses the kids from fraud of using my screen name. ]

out_of_the_engrish says:


I. is not difficult: figured out every conceivable way a basic premise of the spy was infested. Include your precious Google. Many mistakes you can make Google NSA?

Displays only the essence of the supporters to challenge Google Defender NSA: spying privacy blinds them: ‘, helps us appreciate that! ‘.

6:16:01 [257-1 h] [using this screen name, children were suppressed from the scam. ]

Anonymous Coward says:

MASNICK HAS TO CENSOR, he has nothing left to do.

does it worry you that you have such weak arguments, and are so scared of fair debate that you have to resort to lowly censorship to hide behind ??

its sad that your best you can do is censor, thus showing how scared you are of someone questioning your lies and falsehoods.

But it’s certainly not unexpected, when your beat your beat, we all know that..

I guess its easier to convince your 12 fans than to present information that is true or stand up to scrutiny!

Anonymous Coward says:

One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring ?continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.? In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes.

I think we may have found the root of the problem with the NSA (and the rest of the intelligence community for that matter) with regards to it’s surveillance efforts and the way it has tried to justify them to the angry public. They simply can’t distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality. They dream up all kinds of scary scenarios and present them to the public as justification for these constitutional violations but the problem is they are only in their heads while they believe that they are real.

Philosophically there is a term for this. Medically it’s a sign of psychosis.

Anonymous Coward says:

in other words, there hasn’t been a single thing that has not been infiltrated, dissected or abused, just because it could/can be! and anyone who thinks it will stop is in cloud cuckoo land! all that will happen is, the surveillance will be more obscured, more difficult to be found and the people will carry on losing more and more of their privacy and freedom, until the Police State that we are on the verge of already, becomes a clear reality!
even now, the UK police are using information disclosed by GCHQ to shut down web sites that have been decided as ‘infringing, but not by any court! and they have, apparently, removed advertisers from web sites and left malware in place instead! they reckon this is ‘looking after the public’! yeah, right!!

Trevor (profile) says:


Aaaaaand that’s why I won’t be getting an Xbox One. Listening in to Xbox Live = Easy access to the always on Kinect. No thank you.

Also, I’m sure Sony’s systems aren’t much more secure, but at least the PS4 doesn’t REQURIE a camera to work. I’m fine without voice/gesture controls if it means no one’s lookin’ in my living room.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Nope.

Precisely. Normally, the thought of the government going so far as to monitor networked cameras in your home is insane, but articles like this just demonstrate the mindset of the intelligence gathering community – if people can use something to communicate, then terrorists could potentially use it to communicate, thus every single message passing through this medium must be monitored and recorded. Given that mindset, why would they suddenly stop at not watching via Kinect?

Trevor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Nope.


Also, reports have shown analysts routinely spied on their significant others (and people they wanted to be their significant others), as well as private phone conversations between deployed troops and their families. This history shows that easy access to someone’s living room or bedroom would be a very tempting target for these people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ok here's a strategy to combat this....

Design a series of bots to play games and interact with one another, (including having simulated conversations over chat functionality) program the in the ability to randomly, and occasionally trigger simulated conversation that would peak the NSA’s interests, then scatter these game playing bots about the globe playing these games. Every so often the code for interaction between them will get executed that will cause the NSA to launch an investigation that is effectively a wild goose chase. Launch enough of the bots to the point that the chances of an investigation being a complete waste of time and resources is so high that they eventually give up and go look into some other source of intelligence.

Bayan Rafeh (profile) says:

Boss: Why are you playing world of warcraft?
Employee: Because I’m.. uh.. TERRORISTS.
Boss: Fair enough, carry on.
Employee: Thank you sir.*continues playing*
Boss: What was that?
Boss: There you go.

Seriously, does anyone buy that they were playing World of Warcraft to spy on anyone?

FM Hilton (profile) says:

The joy of work

“Seriously, does anyone buy that they were playing World of Warcraft to spy on anyone?”

Yes. They’re very capable of doing it, and I’m sure there’s more than a few WoW players who just jumped for joy when the boss announced that they’d have the chance to do their patriotic duty,get paid for it AND enjoy the job!

Plus: they’re paranoid-everyone’s a terrorist, even those people in Second Life-and stupid. I rather have my doubts that real terrorists would be wasting their time messaging one another on game chat board when cell phones exist.

But it’s a government agency, with all kinds of money to spend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mobius strip

The government intelligence agencies are the real terrorists. Government intelligence agencies play virtual games to find terrorists. Government intelligence agencies find terrorists in games, but terrorists are only playing games, not engaging with terrorism. Government intelligence agencies have stopped terrorist activities. Yay! Government intelligence agencies spying works!

kitsune361 (profile) says:

Amazed and Amused.

I’ve read through approximately half the article, and I am both amused and amazed. Firstly, it’s all very SRS BIZNES over some very silly things.

Firstly, targets: WoW and SL? Really? SL has been dying for years. There are a few people who still make money hand-over-fist, but from my recent experience LL’s been strangling their golden goose for a while.

Tracking the users of World of Warcraft, while being the biggest MMO for a while, the RL motivational force of WoW’s player base is, in my experience, lacking. If they wanted to scope a bunch of fanatic terrorists I’m surprised they didn’t infiltrate some of the corps in Eve Online.

There have been plans of RL skullduggery to sabotage groups in Eve. Players trying to hire a guy to cut the power of someone in another country to leave his Titan vulnerable. Heists that can be counted IRL thousands of USD. I’m surprised Goonfleet’s suicide attacks on mining barges doesn’t raise a red flag in some government DB. Oh, and their masterful forum propaganda! If I were an editor for Inspire, these are the guy’s I’d want to recruit as copy writers and graphic designers.

Also, on the idea of tapping SL, someone I follow retweeted this little gem: https://twitter.com/puellavulnerata/status/410028498867064832
I wonder if that ex-company-man CTO of LL had some hand in this?

Anonymous Coward says:

SL context

I think the Second Life suggestions should be considered in context — remember, in the mid-2000s, technology-illiterate management discovered SL, and was convinced it was the wave of the future — virtual meetings, virtual classrooms, all that shit. So it makes sense that, from some non-very-informed perspectives, SL would look like it might develop into a potentially interesting site for intelligence gathering. Sort of “OMG, encrypted private classrooms for virtual bomb-making lessons!!!!111!!!!eleventy!!! Spy on it right away!”

Anonymous Coward says:

I play Eve Online and about 6 months ago one of our new members mentioned he was working for the NSA.

We promptly stole his stuff and kicked him out. He wasn’t trying to spy on us or anything, just another regular player who happened to work for the NSA. But we should have no tolerance or sympathy for people like that. They’re (willingly) part of a big problem that hurts all of us and the least they deserve is to be socially ostracized.

I was really happy to see all the ranking members in our corp agree he had to be burned like he was. Anytime a member was informed about the guy’s job, the first reaction was always “Steal his stuff and boot him”. I don’t think there’s anything special about our corp, I think a lot of people around the world share these feelings and this attitude towards those who choose to work for the NSA and other agencies who spy on all of us.

Hopefully it will become socially unacceptable to do that job and it will limit the people these agencies can hire.

Bob Kerfufal says:

Political oppression in the guise of counter-terrorism...

My favorite quote, as one who has encountered intel agents through MMO’s as a target…

“One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring ?continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.? In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes.”


Bob Kerfufal says:


Not an expert on psychological illnesses… I’m sure these assholes that work at the government agencies are under immense pressure to produce results, but I guess this would be – more likely – their condition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia

These people are creepy, they know stuff about your personal life and randomly start chatting with you about things unique to only a small subset of the population – like the first person I met in Eve Online just started talking to me about the Kansas City Prophets – few to any people know who those guys are – and – given that I came from a cult that molested me and is heavily connected to that group after which I was tortured by the government, it’s particularly frustrating to know there’s just random people that know stuff about your personal life that will harass you online for no other reason.

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