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 "The documents, obtained by The Guardian and shared with The New York Times and ProPublica, do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort."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.