For the NSA, you real life isn't enough. No, as well as reading your emails and monitoring your phone calls, its agents have been deployed inside MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as Xbox Live.
A briefing uncovered by the Guardian reveals that the NSA—and its UK sister agency GCHQ—have infiltrated the massive online gaming communities in their quest to uncover secrets. The newspaper reports that the NSA has "built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network," as well as deploying agents in the virtual kingdoms of World of Warcraft and Second Life.
The report—originally penned in 2008—explains that these digital realms are "target-rich communications networks" where bad-doers could "hide in plain sight". The Guardian also explains how there "were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games' tech-friendly users." Why such a rich seam? The Guardian explains:
If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people's social networks through "buddylists and interaction", to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.
The ability to extract communications from talk channels in games would be necessary, the NSA paper argued, because of the potential for them to be used to communicate anonymously: Second Life was enabling anonymous texts and planning to introduce voice calls, while game noticeboards could, it states, be used to share information on the web addresses of terrorism forums.
Indeed, given that plenty of gamers use voice headsets, video cameras, and other such tech, there was a ready-to-be-tapped stream of biometric information, too. All that said, though, the document didn't indicate that any of this wealth of data ever foiled any terrorism plots. Nor, for that matter, is it clear that any terror groups really use such virtual communities to communicate, even though the NSA suspected they might.
The report should raise privacy concerns for gamers. Firstly, it's unclear how the NSA ensured it was monitoring the correct targets—many could, in theory, have been innocent players. Second, it's unclear how much data was acquired. It could be a lot. Masses, in fact. All in, it's another example of the NSA scrabbling to acquire as much data as possible with little thought for the impact of its investigations, or, for that matter, the methodology behind it. Sadly, by now we know it won't be the last to come to light. [Guardian]
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