The next time you’re looking to party with a dark elf Rogue in World of Warcraft, think twice: that could be an NSA agent in disguise. According to new documents from the Snowden leaks, both the NSA and the GCHQ employed World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as Xbox Live, to gather intel and uncover plots – but it seems mostly they ended up just bumbling into one another by accident.
The New York Times reports (via The Verge) that efforts around online gaming worlds were thought to be a good idea since they seemed fertile ground for covert enemy activity: false IDs, voice and text chat and even built-in monetary exchange systems, like the WoW in-game goods market, all seemed to have potential for use by a network of militants or terrorists. Seeming like a perfect vehicle for fomenting revolution isn’t the same as actually being one, it turns out.
While intelligence agencies may have gotten a few level 90 characters out of the program, they didn’t reap much in terms of usable intelligence – the documents reveal that a so-called “deconfliction” group was needed for Second Life, for instance, just to make sure that the various agencies involved (including the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon) didn’t trip over each other’s feet. In other words, if one of the groups thought they’d finally tracked down a spy in-game, it would usually turn out to be just another spy on the same side.
In the end the documents don’t reveal any successes from the project, according to the NYT. But the combination of troves of data, huge user pools and communications channels apparently proved impossible to pass up. Second Life appears to have been a particularly high value early target, with its parent company Linden Labs’ CTO meeting with NSA officials at their offices in 2007. The NYT notes that CTO, Cory Ondrejka, had previously worked as a Navy officer with the NSA on top-secret projects before coming to the virtual world startup.
One document from this recent batch of released information suggests that the NSA was able to ID groups, guilds and users on WoW who were associated with extremist Islamic organizations and movements, and another from GCHQ says that they were even able to secure discussions between Xbox Live members, though to what result wasn’t clear. One thing’s for sure: cutting through the static when it comes to the general level of discussion on services like Xbox Live and Second Life would be a full-time gig for any analyst, and determining what’s a coded transmission and what’s just offensive l33tspeak from a nearly illiterate, Mountain Dew-addled 13-year old is essentially impossible.