Fears that the virtual hang-outs for online gamers could become a hotbed for terrorist activity and planning led both British and American intelligence groups to actively spy on services like Xbox Live, World of Warcraft and Second Life, according to newly disclosed classified documents.
The documents, disclosed to The Guardian by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, detail a history of spying with online games that dates back to 2006 and includes not just infiltrating existing online games, but in some cases creating special mobile games explicitly for the purpose of collecting information about the people playing them.
The Pentagon's Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007, working with foreign companies, built mobile games that could be used as "vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users," according to the joint story by the New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica.
The story outlines the seven year history multiple spy agencies, both in the U.S. and abroad, have had with game spying. The agencies were drawn to online gaming because they were seen as a way that terrorists or criminal networks could communicate secretly, move money, or plot attacks and could be a "target-rich communication network," according to the documents. One NSA document described virtual games as "an opportunity!"
None of the documents cite any counterterrorism successes and, according to today's report, none of the myriad of intelligence and gaming experts interviewed for the story knew of any either.
Peter W. Singer, Brookings Institution author of Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, seemed to indicate to the reporters that the notion of terrorist groups using gaming as a way to plan attacks was a red herring.
"For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar," he said.
The reports do note that Al Qaida "terrorist target selectors," Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah and Hamas members have all been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft and other "games and virtual environments."
That said, the fact that British and American intelligence groups are spying on in-game communication is troubling.
Blizzard officials said they have not granted permission for any agencies to gather intelligence from World of Warcraft. Microsoft declined to comment. Second Life officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The leaked documents seem to indicate that the in-game spying has been extensive including one example of British intelligence officers pulling 176,677 lines of data which included communications.
The revelation comes after years of public speculation that terrorist groups could be using games to organize.
Update: A Microsoft spokesperson sent Polygon the following statement: "We're not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent."