Video Games

The NSA and Other Government Snoops Have Been Spying on Online Gamers

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Blizzard Games

For the last several years, American and British intelligence agencies have been conducting surveillance operations inside of online video game worlds Second Life and World of Warcraft, as well as Microsoft's Xbox Live gaming service, according to a report in The New York Times, ProPublica, and The Guardian. The operations, which neither British spies nor the NSA would confirm, stemmed from fears amongst the spy agencies that the games would be used by terrorists for communications and financial transactions. 

The whole project appears to have been a bust, however, with millions of dollars spent for little if any meaningful success in stopping terrorists. A few lowlights from the report:

There were so many government snoops running around Second Life that they had to set up a management team to make sure they didn't all run into each other. "So many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a 'deconfliction' group was needed to avoid collisions."

The spies didn't ask for permission from World of Warcraft's creators. "One American company, the maker of World of Warcraft, said that neither the N.S.A. nor its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, had gotten permission to gather intelligence in its game."

They didn't have any actual evidence that terrorists relied on the games in their plots.  "In the 2008 N.S.A. document, titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," the agency said that "terrorist target selectors" — which could be a computer's Internet Protocol address or an email account — "have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft" and other games. But that document does not present evidence that terrorists were participating in the games."

There's no indication that the spying stopped any terrorist attacks. "The documents, obtained by The Guardian and shared with The New York Times and ProPublica, do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort."

In-game communications were subject to mass collection. "One document says that while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days' worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications."

U.S. defense forces created mobile video games designed to spy on users. "The Pentagon's Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies — including an obscure digital media business based in Prague — to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones, according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users."

The government spent millions of dollars on video game behavior research to reach really, really obvious conclusions. "A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found 'younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,' such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names."

No word yet, however, on how many government agents hit the level cap, or what they really thought about all the business with the magic pandas.   

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  1. Peter for the alt-text win!

    1. I live to serve.

      1. still my favorite. although the picture isn’t showing.

        1. ….it got better….

          1. Nobody expects the gom jabbar inquisition!

            1. *75 Duncans sing “The LumberJack Song”*

      2. It’s a cookbook!

  2. Great, now the government knows that I enabled the “hot coffee” option in Grand Theft Auto.

    1. They know I have a really crappy K/D ratio in Battlefield 4!

      1. Spend more times in tanks racking up cheap kills!

        1. On non-gun control servers, I eat guys in tanks for lunch.

        2. I hate vehicles. Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate. Hate. Vehicles.

      2. Go premium and reset your stats after you learn the ropes. It’s what all the cool 14-yr-olds do.

  3. When can I start calling this “Stalinist” without people saying I’m being hyperbolic?

    1. when you are locked in the gulag, otherwise you’re just being paranoid.

      1. It’s just at Stasi levels right now. Stalin killed millions.

  4. I think it’s time to ask the question: where is the NSA not spying on us? It seems much more useful than asking where they are spying on us. Because the answer to the first question may well be, and probably is, “nowhere”.

    1. Well, certainly, they don’t monitor this blog. I mean, why would they?

      1. I’m fairly certain we’ve had a couple of asshole agents on here from time to time. They’re always interested in “doing something,” always something illegal, and want to know who’ll join them.

        1. Yeah, I can’t imagine the morons haven’t tried fishing here. Though if that’s the best they can do, they really are stuck at ensnaring retards. Maybe they should just focus on themselves, since it’s the same thing.

          1. Hey, guys, let’s occupy the internet, LOLs! I got some phat marihjuana and some C4! Anybody wanna come over and shoot up some joints and overthrow the govermnent?

            1. I’m starting to think you might be a spook. The only thing that could convince me otherwise is if you suggest that we get some neck tattoos.

            2. Nah, I’m too stoned. Legally. I think I’ll just go overthrow a government in Civ V.

          2. Though if that’s the best they can do, they really are stuck at ensnaring retards.

            That really is all the can do. Anyone with a half a brain won’t get caught until after they’ve committed whatever act they’re going to commit, and if they’ve got a whole brain (and know how to keep their mouth shut, leave their cell phone at home, etc) there’s a chance they’ll never get caught.

  5. I pity the NSA analyst who has to follow Epi around on Hello Kitty Online.

    1. I’m moved past Hello Kitty into Legends of Equestria, Hugh. Do try and keep up, just like my NSA stalker.

      1. Legends of Equestria?

        Seriously, though, how do you even know about that?

        And now I know about it!

        Thanks a lot.

      2. Legends of Equestria

        Is it bad that I expecting that to be a “Mr. Hands” themed MMO? I think I’ve been hanging out with you degenerates for too long.

        1. That’s covered in the article, with Second Life. “Mr. Hands and the Watching NSA Agent”

  6. This sounds eerily similar to (I forget which) government agency collecting lots and lots of porn so they could, you know, be sure the children were safe. Or the police department that had a couple of cops frequenting strip clubs all day to see if they could find any prostitutes. Where would we be without these heroes?

    1. Somebody has to investigate that child porn, Scientist. They have to wade through so much of it, that the person who volunteered for the job is a real, selfless hero who keeps taking his flash drive into the research office. What sacrifice!

      1. I wonder if I can get them to pay for my racing habit by offering to ferret out other teams or drivers who might just be terrorists.

        1. No, but you can ride with motorcycle gangs and terrorize innocent motorists, all while doing nothing to enforce the law, so you don’t blow your cover.

  7. I can imagine some agents happily playing video games all day under the guise of spying. Trolololol

    1. If an NSA person was sent to pose as a commenter, I imagine she’d get all bent out of shape. I mean, the stuff we’re always saying about government workers?

      These are people who think they’re doing a real service to their country. I understand a lot of them are former Air Force.

      They’d probably lose their shit after a while. …start a website cataloging all of our comments, and then troll, troll, troll!

      But I don’t think Mary was NSA. But I think that’s the kind of reaction a government employee would have after a while. You think you’re keeping America safe from terrorists, and you get assigned to read comments at a libertarian website completely denouncing you as a traitor to your country and the Constitution–after a while, you’re trolliest of trolls.

      1. That’s just what an NSA spy would say! J’ACCUSE!

        1. damn you and your 1-60 second faster fingers!

      2. I bet that’s what you WANT us to think NSA OFFICER SHULTZ!

        *drops mic*

    2. I saw this suggested elsewhere and it makes more sense than what is being reported.

      I’m going with the theory that some genius mid level manager and his buddies at work have sever WoW addictions and dreamt up these secret online meetings as a way to use the awesome computers they get to play WoW at work.

      Really, it’s brilliant. I wonder if I can convince my employer that since a lot of malware stems from online pornography, I need to spend my day checking multiple sites to learn about any new threats that might hit our network.

      1. “Dude, they like totally fell for it.”

        “You’re shitting me!”

        “Nope. I’m installing Steam as we speak.”

      2. The fact that no Al Qaeda cells have been located in WoW means their strategy is working!

        If they were going to really trap Al Qaeda in a game like that, they should develop their own.

        World of Jihadicraft or something–centered on fighting the infidel. Al Qaeda guys don’t want to pretend their orcs. They want to pretend they’re fighting the infidels or Assad or somebody.

  8. I really, really want to find out who the spooks are in WoW, so I can roll a rogue named EdwardSnowden and corpse camp their asses.

    1. And you just know the NSA plays Alliance.

  9. Nothing left to cut.

  10. The whole project appears to have been a bust, however, with millions of dollars spent for little if any meaningful success in stopping terrorists.

    Isn’t that pretty much the whole NSA, really. I mean REALLY? Srsly? No, but….seriously.

  11. I’m taking the painter’s tape off the camera on my laptop and spending considerable time picking my nose in full view. Naaanahhhh, naaanahhh NSA!!! Viva la Revolution!

    1. I have an ongoing project to make sure every NSA watcher sees my taint. I suppose them being able to view cameras in offline mode just makes it that much easier.

      I wonder if I can file a FOIA request so I can get some metrics on how well my project is going.

      1. What does your roommate think of this project?

        1. She thinks its hilarious. Particularly because she’s always been paranoid about built in webcams. She has not seen my taint though.

      2. If your FOIA request is successful you might end up with scrapbook worthy photo’s of said taint. Precious memories.

      3. The fastest way to do this is to convince the NSA that terrorists are using ChatRoulette to hold secret meetings.

      4. I did something similar. I created a few dummy accounts on overseas email systems, took a bunch of dick pics, encrypted them with some fairly simple encryption (so they could actually crack it). and then emailed it to all my dummy accounts and then closed the accounts.

        I really want to know how many NSA employees have seen my penis.

        1. You should get those bumps checked out.

          1. It’s just razor burn.

            “there really is nothing quite like a freshly shorn scrotum. It’s breathtaking, really”

  12. One of these days, some spook is going to see an apparition of Osama bin Laden in his toasted bagel and the NSA will start to secretly monitor bakeries.

    1. I nominate myself to be in charge of monitoring Nothing Bundt Cakes

  13. Also, if I were The Gobbler, I’d say, “Way to go, kiddo!”

    Whatever happened to The Gobbler?

    Don’t tell me it was Thanksgiving – not falling for that one! Again!

  14. American and British intelligence agencies have been conducting surveillance operations inside of online video game worlds Second Life and World of Warcraft, as well as Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming service

    But remember, anyone worried about the Kinect on the Xbox One potentially being used to spy on you is just crazy.

    the agency said that “terrorist target selectors” ? which could be a computer’s Internet Protocol address or an email account ? “have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft” and other games.

    Terrorists gotta blow off steam after a long day of Jihad too.

    Somehow I suspect that this was all just a ploy to get to play WoW at taxpayers expense.

    1. Anybody monitoring my Kinect would have their brain explode trying to process how awesome my dance moves are.

      1. “Xbox, record that!”

        “I’m sorry, playa, I can’t do that.”

        OT (if possible): Thanks for the sous vide recipe last week. Going to try it this weekend.

        1. No prob. One thing I forgot to include:
          If (when) you make the Au Jus, let it cool to about 120 before serving or it will cook the prime rib right on the plate.
          I did 2 kinds, one from scratch with rib bones, beef stock, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and seasoned salt; and the other from Lawry’s Au Jus/Gravy mix. The mix was surprisingly good, almost as good as the one from scratch…

        2. Also, I started using applewood smoked salt on my meats. It is pretty amazing on prime rib.
          http://www.amazon.com/Frontier…..003PPWD2U/

          1. My wife is going to love hating you. (She hates our grocery bill but loves nice food.)

  15. Charlie Stross is a sad panda. Apparently the Near Future is becoming dystopian faster than Charlie can keep up with. I’m a little sad as Rule 34‘s ending set up some really interesting possibilities, but I do respect Charlie for quitting when his universe is broken (like he did with the Eschaton ‘verse).

    1. The new Laundry novella, Equoid, wasn’t bad. But Neptune’s Brood turned into an interstellar bank fraud mystery, which while readable was…a little weird. Especially as a “sequel” to Saturn’s Children.

      Stross needs to do something completely new.

      1. He’s reworking his Merchant Princes world, which is not at all my favorite series. But I’ll probably buy it anyways. Because they’re still better than most of the other stuff out there.

  16. How about searching GTA for signs of potential anti-social or criminal behavior among the users? I’m thinking it will approach 100%.

    1. Especially considering that there’s a mission where you get to break into a CIA building and go on a killing spree.

      1. Was that the one where you pose as a janitor and plant bombs all over the place? I get them mixed up.

      2. As opposed to all the other times you *don’t* go on a killing spree?

  17. check out David Beckett

  18. Makes perfect sense, and was predicted by Neal Stephenson in his novel REAMDE.

    I used to play World of Warcraft a lot. I do not see how information transmitted over open channels within the game can be considered “private” in any way, shape, or form.

    I have no problem with governments collecting, reading, and analyzing information that is transmitted publicly and unencrypted.

    It would be like complaining about people who work for a government reading the local newspaper.

    (I’ve actually heard some activists claim that they consider it unethical for governments to even use media monitoring services. I think that is a ridiculous claim.)

    Information that is PUBLISHED on-line is, by definition, PUBLIC. Information that is published behind a paywall (like World of Warcraft) is public for anybody that pays the fee.

    There can be no expectation of privacy in that scenario.

    1. I think the idea is that, within the game, you set up a private chat channel and only give out the name to those you trust.

      The idea is that will several million people talking on multiple channels simultaneously its hard to find your group – doubly so since everyone is using a pseudonym and pre-paid account cards so ‘@ssbl@ster69’ may not even be the same guy from day to day.

      Unfortunately reality ensues – a little thinking about the architecture here would tell you that all that stuff is funneled through an easily monitored bottleneck. Even without the tech the NSA has to siphon off the internet as a whole, you could copy the chat off the game servers and then pore through it at your leisure.

      This wasn’t a viable means of handling communications between conspirators even when Stephenson first mentioned it.

      1. If the complaint is that it’s a waste of the NSA’s time and money to bother monitoring World of Warcraft chats, then I’m certainly sympathetic to THAT argument.

        I assumed that the complaint was that it was a violation of gamers’ privacy. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have made that assumption.

        🙂

  19. Well, automatic bot explains the quality of morons I got in LFRs. Some of them deliberately stood in fire.

  20. I think this one is more about a complete waste of time and money than about privacy violations.

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