Nerf the NSA: SpyCraft in the World of WarCraft

One of the first PC experiences I ever had was with Spycraft: The Great Game, an impressive glimpse at life in the CIA through the use of grainy full-motion video and a ton of ridiculously hard to solve puzzles. If you think about it, the life of a spy is a game in itself, using clandestine techniques, aggressive tactics, and superior intellect to neutralize threats. But what constitutes a “threat?” in the hyper-paranoid post-9/11 society? According to newly released documents from the NSA, it might be gamers.

The latest report on the massive information gathering of the NSA, released by The Guardian with the help of whistleblower Edward Snowden, proves that the virtual world of Azeroth is now a surveillance state.

Fearing that terrorist networks could plan attacks, transfer money, or communicate in secret, the National Security Agency is going on the offensive by entering games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, and creating characters to snoop, recruit informers and collect communications data among players.

Much of the fear comes from the assumption that terrorists operate is a similar manner as gamers: using fake identities, voice and text chats, and conducting digital financial transactions.

The NSA document in question, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving games communities under-monitored, describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.

“Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors and … have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [games and virtual environments],” the document notes. “Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah, and Hamas members.”

According to the NSA, If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people’s social networks through “buddy lists and interaction”, to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.

Interestingly enough, at one point, so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies were “searching” around in Second Life, the document noted that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions (in other words, duplicating the work of other agencies). This is starting to look like an excuse for these guys to play games on the job….

Joking aside, the reports show that the intelligence community (i.e. the guys who should know more than us) overreached and inflated the threat.

That lack of knowledge of whether terrorists were actually plotting online emerges in the document’s recommendations: “The amount of GVEs in the world is growing but the specific ones that CT [counter-terrorism] needs to be methodically discovered and validated,” it stated. “Only then can we find evidence that GVEs are being used for operational uses.”

Not actually knowing whether terrorists were playing games was not enough to keep the intelligence agencies out of them, however. According to the document, GCHQ had already made a “vigorous effort” to exploit games, including “exploitation modules” against Xbox Live and World of Warcraft.

At the request of GCHQ, the NSA had begun a deliberate effort to extract World of Warcraft metadata from their troves of intelligence, and trying to link “accounts, characters and guilds” to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts.

By the end of 2008, the efforts produced only one usable piece of intelligence, according to the documents: the successful takedown of a website used to trade stolen credit card details through Second Life.

Failing in their stated objective, the NSA took the small win and ran with it, further increasing their efforts in an government document titled “Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments,” the agency said that “terrorist target selectors” — which could be a computer’s Internet Protocol address or an email account — “have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft” and other games. But that document does not present evidence that terrorists were participating in the games.

Unfortunately, this intrusion into the virtual lives of gamers is par for the course over the last decade, with more creative examples of snooping than simply reading chat logs. In fact, the Pentagon in 2006 and 2007, worked with several foreign companies to build digital download titles that were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.

Even major consulting firms tried to get in on the action, with the huge government bedfellow SAIC promoting its ability to support “intelligence collection in the game space,” and warned that online games could be used by militant groups to recruit followers and could provide “terrorist organizations with a powerful platform to reach core target audiences.”

When contractors attempt to ride the coattails of the intelligence community, and are jockeying for government contracts, then we know it has effectively turned into a jobs program.

The sad irony in all of this is the fact that game companies themselves are in it for the money, and because of this, they already closely monitor the identity and activity of the users who play their title. This pursuit of profits makes digital security a top priority, and reciprocity among developer and gamer is already expected.

So when considering places to keep their communications secret, terrorist organizations already know that there are much better places to do so than through an avatar on WoW.

….Unless they really are that dumb, which would effectively negate the need for such expansive and clandestine information gathering that costs the American people hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

As you would expect, there are no attached documents that cite any counterterrorism success for the wide-scale effort. There are also no acknowledgment from intelligence officials, game company employees or outside experts that terrorist groups viewed the games as a sanctuary and communication hub for plot operations.

This brings obvious privacy concerns for millions of regular gamers trying to simply play their title of choice.. What we don’t know is how the agencies got access to gamers data, how many players have been monitored, or whether Americans’ communications were captured.

Blizzard has denied any involvement, stating “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”

The government spokesperson for the GCHQ, acting accordingly, could “neither confirm nor deny” any involvement, but that its work is conducted in “a strict legal and policy framework” with rigorous oversight. The NSA simply declined to comment on anything.

While snooping on that shady group of Orcs might seem like a somewhat rational thing to do for someone who doesn’t really understand how game data actually works, the government should know better. But this seems to go beyond simply searching for a legitimate terrorist threat, and looks to be yet another heavy-handed attempt at keeping the spy agencies well-funded and the world population under the ever vigilant eye of big data.

I am a strong proponent of using data to make good decisions. Meta-information can be predictive, helpful, and enlightening. It can solve emerging problems and shed light on trends, cultural shifts and general attitudes. Even Riot Games has a Big Data group that takes everything they learn from each match and attempts to create an even better experience.

But this goes beyond what is necessary, and simply looks to be a witch hunt with little or no chance of any broad success. Rather than spending much needed public funds on a weak economy, crumbling infrastructure, deep inequity in wealth and a host of other major human concerns, the government is creating WoW characters and trolling people who just want to blow off some steam and enjoy their time in a world they love.

The NSA is making the outside world a paranoid, distrustful, guilty-before-proven-innocent society based on fear. And every time they use “likely” and “terrorist”, they get another billion dollars to waste.

Games are supposed to be an ideal…a place to be free, without the worry that the real world is judging you. Well, times have changed. Welcome to the Panopticon.

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