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NSA, GCHQ Caught Spying on Online Games

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 15 comments
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If you thought you could evade the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) by slipping into an online multiplayer game, think again: Both agencies have infiltrated "World of Warcraft" and "Second Life" in an effort to foil terrorist conspiracies.

Reports from The New York Times and the Guardian explain that, according to documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the NSA and GCHQ viewed online games as a potentially rich source of information.

While it's not clear how many agents were involved, how they gathered information or whether monitoring games yielded any useful anti-terrorist info, the documents reveal that "World of Warcraft" and "Second Life" were both monitored, as was Xbox Live.

MORE: 15 Best Classic PC Games Gone Free

Since Xbox Live is a comprehensive online service and not a single game, it's possible that agents monitored text and voice messages and content consumption history, in addition to in-game communications. Microsoft has a history of being cooperative with the NSA.

What the documents do reveal is that the NSA and GCHQ, along with the FBI and the CIA, viewed online games as an "opportunity" for potential terrorists to "hide in plain sight."

Since online games foster very easy communication and provide tools for large groups of people to organize and communicate (as with guilds in "World of Warcraft" or clans in multiplayer shooters), they could foster terrorist networks in a much less obvious fashion than traditional email or chat rooms.

What's more, so many CIA, FBI, GCHQ and NSA employees and contractors dove headfirst into online games that they needed an advisory group to ensure that they weren't spying on each other.

Blizzard, the company behind "World of Warcraft," told the Times and the Guardian that it did not give permission to spy on its players, although it's not clear if anything could have prevented the surveillance. Nothing prohibits players from recording conversations from "World of Warcraft," or from reporting suspicious ones to law-enforcement authorities.

Microsoft and Linden Realms (the developer of social simulator "Second Life") did not provide any comments on the issue.

In-game spying has been going on since 2008, and the NSA theorizes that Islamic extremists, arms dealers and even purveyors of nuclear-weapons technology use video games as an under-the-radar hub.

MORE: 6 Ways Tech Companies' 'Reform Government Surveillance' Fails

As always, unless you use online games as a way to discuss your plans to destabilize the Western world, you probably have nothing to fear from government agents in your online games. In fact, those agents will have spent so much time building up their characters and honing their skills that they may actually make very useful teammates.

While gamers who value privacy may find it unsettling that government snoops have followed them into their favorite hobby, it's important to remember that the organizations are not doing anything illegal; indeed, anyone can monitor and record your activities in online games, unless the title's terms of service specifically state otherwise.

Furthermore, there's no evidence that these organizations have any interest in Sony's PlayStation Network, which may become the go-to destination for the gamer who absolutely, positively does not want to play with government spies. (It may be worth noting that Sony is a Japanese company, while Blizzard, Linden Realms and Microsoft are all American.)

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  • 6 Hide
    jimmysmitty , December 9, 2013 10:52 AM
    I knew the horde was a bunch of terrorists. Planning to attack the alliance.

    Never could trust a Orc....
  • 0 Hide
    dgingeri , December 9, 2013 11:12 AM
    This is funny, since in WoW you could just go off to some out of the way place and just use say or join a channel, or even just use whispers to have a secure conversation. WoW traffic is encrypted to keep people from hacking the game. (Back in the early days, there was some sort of hack that gave rogues permanent sprint and 100% crit by hacking the traffic stream. Blizzard started encrypting the traffic at that point.) Spies within WoW would be almost useless.
  • 1 Hide
    newbie_mcnoob , December 9, 2013 11:21 AM
    Nice to know my tax dollars are getting spent paying for the employees of those agencies to play games all day.
  • Display all 15 comments.
  • 4 Hide
    SoiledBottom , December 9, 2013 11:24 AM
    My next character is gonna be a NSA Elf Hunter Rogue
  • 1 Hide
    quilciri , December 9, 2013 11:24 AM
    This is my surprised face :|

    WTB - gif of an orc in fedora/trenchcoat/sunglasses.
  • 3 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , December 9, 2013 11:49 AM
    That's it. I'm changing my Halo name to Ed Snowden.
  • 7 Hide
    jasonpwns , December 9, 2013 11:53 AM
    Sounds like someone in the NSA found an excuse that allowed him to play his favorite game all day.
  • -1 Hide
    f-14 , December 9, 2013 12:03 PM
    man i wish my previous pc's hdd hadn't crashed, they said they were going to do this back in 2003 right before they invaded iraq. wouldn't surprise me if the nsa had been doing this since 1995 when clinton enacted all the backdoor policy laws at the request of mr 'i invented the internet' VPOTUS Gore senate president right before the big GPS and DMCA push.
  • 2 Hide
    Anastopholies , December 9, 2013 12:53 PM
    I want this job.. "I think there might be something fishy here so I'm going on this raid. I get paid overtime right?" ;D
  • 0 Hide
    pacioli , December 9, 2013 1:42 PM
    I wonder how many rogues were created today with the name Nsaspy...
  • 2 Hide
    softfish , December 9, 2013 1:55 PM
    Oh crap, i guess i'm a target now. After putting c4 on my buggy in Battlefield and yelling Allah Akbar before ramming it into a tank..
  • 0 Hide
    internetlad , December 9, 2013 2:36 PM
    "The warheads are prepped and ready for delivery, here is our agent's Friend Code, trade him a clefairy in Pokemon Y to let him know the deal is on."
  • 0 Hide
    knowom , December 9, 2013 3:03 PM

    "Blizzard didn't give permission for the NSA to spy on it's bots"
  • 0 Hide
    southernshark , December 10, 2013 12:34 AM
    I knew that NE chick who wanted to Cyber in the deeprun tram was a spy.
  • 0 Hide
    clonazepam , December 10, 2013 8:50 AM
    You are all welcome to come join me on Everquest lol... looking for a few good monks, wizards, mages, paladins, rangers, shamans, enchanters, and berserkers!

    Yes, EQ1 because the community is much more mature.
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