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.
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.
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.)