The world of national news has once again collided with our corner of video game news, as a new report claims that various intelligence agencies tried applying their spycraft within games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, along with the Xbox Live service. Classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden reveal that groups snooped in the games, believing they could be used by terrorists or other criminals to communicate secretly.
The documents, reported by the New York Times, say that the agencies collected data on communications between players, while also creating their own characters to recruit informants in-game. Fearing the games provided a rich opportunity to "hide in plain sight," intelligence officials felt they had to check.
How the agencies gained access to data and communications, or just how many gamers were scrutinized, is unclear. A document from the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) said that it had "successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live." It didn't specify how those discussions had been obtained. For their part, Blizzard said that neither the NSA nor the GCHQ had gotten permission to monitor in WoW.
"We are unaware of any surveillance taking place," said a spokesman for Blizzard. "If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."
Spokespersons for Microsoft and Linden Lab declined to comment.
The released documents don't show any evidence of successful counter-terrorism from the efforts. A 2008 operation from GCHQ did reportedly help crack down on a crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information. But the sheer mass of agencies involved had a downside. So many disparate groups were involved at once in Second Life, the report states, that a "deconfliction" group was formed to keep them from running into each other.
One NSA document did claim that valid targets of interest appeared to be playing World of Warcraft, but it doesn't indicate that the targets were playing for nefarious communications purposes. In other words, they may have just been playing for fun in their spare time.