You can strike terrorist trolls off your list of things to be afraid of.
The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency have secretly infiltrated the virtual worlds of online multi-player games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, where they use avatars to recruit informants and seek out potential threats, according to a new report. Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden describe the potential of an online game to “become a target-rich communication network” where threat “targets hide in plain sight,” ProPublica, the Guardian and the New York Times report in a joint investigation.
According to one document, in 2008 the British intelligence agency GCHQ helped bring down a crime ring selling stolen credit card information in a virtual world. Another GCHQ document describes the potential to recruit engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, and other foreign intelligence operatives by meeting their avatars in virtual worlds. An NSA document said spying on the World of Warcraft “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.”
There is some evidence intelligence agencies may have over-committed resources to combating a relatively minor threat in its virtual world operations, ProPublica reports. With so many agents from CIA, FBI, and DIA operating in Second Life, a “deconfliction” group was needed, according to one document, to avoid collisions between spies working for the same team.
In a World of Warcraft discussion thread started days after Snowden’s revelations first began making the news in June, a human death knight named Crrassus wondered aloud if the NSA might be monitoring the discussions.
“If they ever read these forums,” a goblin priest named Diaya replied, “they would realize they were wasting” their time.
Microsoft, Second Life founder Philip Rosedale and Linden Lab executives all declined requests for comment from ProPublica. A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment, which makes World of Warcraft, said the company is “unaware of any surveillance taking place” and that “if it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.