NSA and GCHQ Infiltrated Online Games to Hunt Terrorists

Friday, December 13, 2013
(AP Photo)

There is nowhere the National Security Agency (NSA) won’t look for potential threats, even in realms that don’t exist.


Working with other federal agencies and GCHQ, its British intelligence counterpart, the NSA has infiltrated the world of online role-playing games to spot potential terrorists.


Government agents fanned out across the World of Warcraft and Second Life, which are played by millions across the globe, according to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian, which shared them with The New York Times and ProPublica.


Once inside these video games, undercover operatives looked for players who might be plotting attacks or gathering resources for such missions.


A 2008 NSA document (“Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments”) described gaming communities as a “target-rich communications network” where threats could “hide in plain sight.”


These realms seemed so attractive, in fact, that the NSA, GCHQ, the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation dove into them, which forced the government to create a “deconfliction” group to make sure agents weren’t spying on each other.


A 2007 invitation to a secret internal NSA briefing pointed out that “terrorists use online games—but perhaps not for their amusement. They are suspected of using them to communicate secretly and to transfer funds.”


That same year, Cory Ondrejka—then chief technology officer at Second Life and a former U.S. Navy officer who once held a security clearance to work at the NSA—appeared as a speaker at an NSA luncheon to explain how his company’s game gave the U.S. government “the opportunity to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving US soil.” (Ondrejka is currently the director of mobile engineering at Facebook.)


But for all this game infiltration work, the effort may not have yielded any real information that foiled an attack, based on what the documents contained.


The producer of World of Warcraft told The Guardian that neither the NSA nor GCHQ asked them for permission to gather intelligence inside the game. “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment said. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Xbox Live Among Game Services Targeted by US and UK Spy Agencies (by James Ball, The Guardian)

Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games (by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, New York Times)

NSA and GCHQ Infiltrated OPEC’s Computer Network (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov) 

NSA Teamed with U.K. and Tech Companies to Override Global Internet Privacy (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov) 



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