Visitors play “World of Warcraft” at an exhibition stand during the Gamescom 2012 fair in Cologne, Germany. (Ina Fassbender/Reuters)
by Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, Dec. 9, 2013, 6:59 a.m.
Note: This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.
This story has been reported in partnership between The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica based on documents obtained by The Guardian.
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. Because militants often rely on features common to video games — fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions — American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.
Takeaways: How Spy Agencies Operate In Virtual Worlds
GATHERING INTELLIGENCE: U.S. and British intelligence agencies — including the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense intelligence agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters — have operated in virtual worlds and gaming communities to snoop and try to recruit informants. For example, according to Snowden documents, the U.S. has conducted spy operations in Second Life (pictured), where players create human avatars to socialize, buy and sell goods and explore exotic virtual destinations. (Second Life image via Linden Lab)
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Online games might seem innocuous, a top-secret 2008 NSA document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity!,” another 2008 NSA document declared.
But for all their enthusiasm — so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.
The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.
(Transcript: What are intelligence agencies doing in virtual worlds?)
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.”
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