Ostensibly concerned that terrorists would disguise themselves as gamers in order to secretly communicate, agents from the NSA, CIA, Pentagon and Britain's GCHQ have posed undercover in online realms like World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live. In fact, the practice grew so popular with the spy agencies that a special "deconfliction" group was established to prevent the agents from inadvertently spying on or trying to recruit each other.
Our country's best and brightest began disguising themselves as digital trolls, elves, and supermodels in 2008, after a top-secret NSA documents—provided by Edward Snowden and published by the New York Times and ProPublica—described the games as a "target-rich communication network" that lets terrorists and other criminals "hide in plain sight."
Despite offering evidence that certain targets played online games, the program did not, according to the NSA document, achieve any actual counter-terrorism successes, perhaps because such games would make a terrible place to exchange secret information. From the New York Times:
Games "are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players' identity and activity is tracked," said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an author of "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know." "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."
Even if there was no value gained from monitoring terror suspects, intelligence agencies soon identified another potential boon from the practice: the recruitment of double agents. According to the NSA documents, Britain's GHCQ discovered that engineers, embassy employees, and foreign intelligence agents were playing World of Warcraft, though its unclear if any agents were recruited through the game.
The business of spying in online games generated millions for the private sector. After a conference discussing the perceived threat in 2009, two private companies—SAIC and Lockheed Martin—received multi-million dollar government contracts to study the links between a persons online persona and their real-life behavior, though those studies have proved ineffective, providing seemingly obvious information like, "younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities."
While executives from World of Warcraft's parent company, Blizzard Entertainment, have denied any knowledge of the spying, in 2007, Cory Ondrejka, the CTO for Linden Lab, the company that produces Second Life, gave a presentation to NSA officials which advertised that it would allow the government "to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. Soil."
Ondrejka's participation makes sense: Prior to Linden, he was a Navy officer who worked at the NSA with top-secret clearance. But, luckily for gamers, he no longer works at Linden. The former NSA agent's current job? Director of mobile engineering at Facebook. Nothing to worry about there.
The New York Times report comes just two days after the Washington Post revealed that, for years now, the FBI has been able to activate a computer's camera "without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording."
The NSA documents on online games and virtual worlds are embedded below.