NSA Spy Video Games__SS_121013
December 10, 2013

NSA Spies Now Lurking In World Of Warcraft

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The National Security Agency (NSA), as well as its UK counterpart agency GCHQ, have been discovered lurking in online games. The unorthodox new tactic was unearthed in documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The files used to uncover NSA and GCHQ activities in games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life were obtained by the Guardian and reported on jointly with the New York Times and ProPublica.

According to reports, documents show that the agencies have built mass-collection capabilities to deploy on Xbox Live. While there are computer programs at work, agents venture into the virtual worlds created in online games to collect information that may lead to suspects among Xbox Live's network of over 48 million players. Players of World of Warcraft and Second Life, however, are a portion of that cohort. Part of the activities of the two agencies included attempts to recruit potential informants, according to the Guardian.

This type of spying on gamers dates back to 2008, when the document was written. "The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving gaming communities under-monitored, describing them as a 'target-rich communications network' where intelligence targets could 'hide in plain sight," the Guardian's James Bell wrote.

A large number of US intelligence agents populated the online games, at times, seizing on what an analyst wrote was "an opportunity." An analyst said in the documents that the large number of agents playing in games required the agency to set up a "deconfliction" group that ensured that agents weren't spying on each other, or interfering with efforts of another agent present in the game.

"If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people's social networks through 'buddylists and interaction', to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications" the Guardian's Bell wrote.

The NSA and GCHQ were working under the fear that terrorist or criminal networks could use games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, according to documents leaked by Snowden, The New York Times reports.

"Any forum can serve for an exchange: you could leave a coded message as an obscure review of some product at Amazon, and the reply might come in the form of something that looks like a piece of spam into a Yahoo account. Each has some level of deniability and indirection as to the purpose, but what better way not to stand out when chatting about acts of violence than in multi-player games on the net?" Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the Computer Science  Department at the University of Maryland, told redOrbit. "Nobody should be surprised to learn that investigators might patrol those corners of the internet as well."

Agents using digital avatars including elves, gnomes and supermodels used the online games to snoop, recruit, and collect data and contents of communications between players.

The New York Times located a researcher who was involved in the virtual investigation. Palo Alto researcher Nick Yee said the project afforded little information to its sources. "We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government's motivations and goals," Yee told the New York Times.