The whole NSA spying scandal just took an unexpected turn. According to a document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, spooks have infiltrated the virtual worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft. The Guardian has the details, including the revelation that the NSA also has "mass-collection capabilities" for Xbox Live. Ugh.
The document describing the NSA's gaming activities was authored in 2008, so this has been going on for a while. Interestingly, the NSA may have been partially inspired by a presentation given by a Second Life COO. In 2007, the unnamed executive reportedly told the NSA that Second Life gave the agency "the opportunity to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviours of non-Americans through observation, without leaving US soil." The folks behind Second Life declined The Guardian's request for comment, as did Microsoft. However, Blizzard said it was "unaware of any surveillance," and that anything along those lines was being done "without [its] knowledge or permission."
Agents operating in online games didn't just come from the NSA. The CIA and FBI were reportedly in on the action, and so was the British GCHQ. In fact, there were so many snoops running around that a special group was established to ensure that they didn't interfere with each other. There's no word on whether these activities are ongoing, so consider my use of the past tense as wishful thinking.
Although the leaked NSA document claims that gaming accounts have been associated with IP addresses linked to terrorist groups, there doesn't appear to be any evidence linking video games—or communication within them—to actual terrorist plots. The only piece of usable intelligence mentioned by The Guardian relates to a case involving credit card fraud. So much for the "target-rich communications network" described by the NSA report. I wonder how many man-hours have been logged by government agents
leveling up hunting for terrorists.
In related news, several of the biggest tech companies have banded together to call for surveillance reform. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL have all joined the Reform Government Surveillance group, which has laid out a series of principles covering privacy, accountability, and oversight. Perhaps Blizzard and other gaming companies should join the party.