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NSA's Game Spying

The,, and ProPublica report that the U.S. National Security Agency's spying on citizens extends to participation in online games. This is according to documents disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which say U.S. and British spies have infiltrated various games in toon form to keep tabs on the goings-on since at least 2007. They have a specific statement on World of Warcraft: "We are unaware of any surveillance taking place," said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment. "If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission." Word is this surveillance extended to Xbox LIVE, but their big focus seems to be Second Life, and they were apparently so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies caught up in Linden Labs' metaverse a "deconfliction" group was required to keep them out of each other's virtual hair (we always wondered how that "game" reported such high user counts). Apparently they fell for some signature Second Life hype: "Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!" Linden Labs solicited the NSA in an invitation to discuss the game's espionage potential with Linden CTO (and former Navy officer with NSA contacts) Cory Ondrejka, promising virtual worlds gave the government the opportunity "to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil." Current Linden Labs execs declined the opportunity to comment on this, and these days Ondrejka is helping safeguard our privacy at Facebook. They offer details on another such operation which may have resulted in a lucrative deal for another contractor to monitor activity within games. And while the Brits did bust up a credit card crime ring in Second Life, for the most part, this initiative has been about as productive towards national security as one might imagine a bunch of spooks playing MMOGs would be:

The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.

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.”

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