In recent years, the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have turned their legally dubious spying efforts to the world of online gaming, which documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden and obtained by The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica described as a “target-rich communications network” in which intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight.”
The documents reveal the agencies have developed the ability to collect information from users on platforms like Xbox Live and in virtual realms like those in the games “World of Warcraft” and “Second Life.” Agents also attempted to recruit potential informants among the games’ users. Tens of millions of people worldwide play games online.
The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving games communities under-monitored, describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.
Games, the analyst wrote, “are an opportunity!”. According to the briefing notes, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other.
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.