Image: Dan Stuckey
On top of scooping up torrents of private real-world data from citizens worldwide, it turns out that government spies also planted undercover agents inside the fantasy world of goblins, elves, and trolls to monitor virtual gamers. The NSA, CIA, FBI, and UK spy agency GCHQ posed as made-up characters in World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live to collect extensive amounts of data from players’ communications, according to a Guardian report citing classified documents from 2008.
The Feds figured MMORPGs are a logistical haven for militants or criminals, since avatars are essentially fake identities, messages could be sent anonymously and in real-time, and the games' virtual currencies could be used to move or launder money. Virtual reality games could be a "target-rich communication network" giving nefarious players a "way to hide in plain sight," according to the document.
It's an all-too-familiar song at this point. Like in the past, the government secretly invaded the privacy of millions of people—World of Warcraft alone has nearly 10 million players globally—to carry out the operation. And also like in the past, the spies never found any examples of national security threats, and no terrorist plots have been thwarted through the clandestine gaming.
That's certainly not for lack of trying. At one point, the spy agencies had so many undercover avatars roaming the virtual worlds they were stepping on each other's toes—the spies couldn't tell the difference between a target and a fellow operative from a different agency. A "deconfliction" group had to be formed to sort out which government spy-avatars were which.
The crowd of agents were monitoring messages to identify IP addresses and time zones, and scooping up buddy lists to diagram players' social networks and to try to make connections between suspected terror threats. Not only that, intelligence officials claimed the games could be used to practice and train for actual terrorist operations. With middleware and mods, game developers could create a virtual environment that provided realistic weapons training and true-to-life land maps and terrain to work with. "Some of the 9-11 pilots had never flown a real plane, they had only trained using Microsoft's Flight Simulator," the document explains.
The document, called "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," states that Al-Qaida terrorist computer networks were found to be "associated with" the games, but that doesn't prove any direct link. Chances are, the Feds found that terrorists were playing WoW and Second Life, but not using the games to communicate and carry out their plots.
Though the government gamers didn’t directly stop any terrorist or cyber-threats—the spies were also hunting Chinese hackers and Iranian nuclear scientists—they did have some success recruiting informers. Intelligence agencies, then, devoted a huge amount of time and effort to turning other gamers into narcs in an environment in which they were unable to detect any terror threats at all. Sounds about right.