NSA, CIA, other intelligence agencies target online games, reports say

December 9, 2013

Part of the appeal of online games — particularly massive, multiplayer titles such as World of Warcraft or Second Life — is that they let players escape into a separate, virtual world. But recent news reports indicate that agents from the National Security Agency, FBI, CIA, and British Government Communications Headquarters have been scoping out these and other online gaming communities in search of real-world threats.

The reports, part of a collaboration between the New York Times, ProPublica and The Guardian, indicate that agencies were not only spying on games but also looking through users’ online chats. A document from the NSA, published by the Guardian, outlined several ways for these agencies to use the games’ communication channels to identify and monitor players who they think might be able to provide key information for investigations.

It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies have in the past monitored online gaming communities to determine whether they were being used to coordinate organized crime activity. In a 2011 report that assessed emerging threats in how gangs used technology, the FBI identified Second Life as a gaming space where gang members could potentially “recruit, spread propaganda, commit other crimes such as drug trafficking, and receive training for real-world criminal operations” by creating online alter-egos and using in-game communications. In 2008, then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Second Life as a potential avenue for money laundering because of its in-game currency.

The documents released in news reports Monday suggest that U.S. and British agencies were looking at Xbox Live, the online gaming network associated with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Xbox Live users can communicate by text or voice chat.

According to the Guardian report, documents from the NSA did not say how effective the monitoring efforts were, whether the agents stopped any terrorist plots, or if there was clear evidence that the games were actually being used for criminal activity.

The latest reports add to the growing list of companies whose customers’ online communications have been monitored by these agencies. As The Washington Post reported, eight of the nation’s largest technology companies have now called on the Obama administration and Congress to put new curbs on this form of cyber surveillance. The companies include Microsoft, which produces the Xbox, and Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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