The NSA, FBI, and CIA are infiltrating and spying on multi-player role playing games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, according to an NSA document leaked by Edward Snowden and published jointly by The Guardian, New York Times, and ProPublica.
According to the reports, the various intelligence agencies have so many undercover players inside these games that they established a “deconfliction” group to ensure that they weren’t spying on one another or interfering with the other agents’ missions. And true to NSA form, there’s zero evidence these spy games are worthwhile for counterterrorism purposes. The NSA document describing the efforts to spy on the private communications and activities of gamers does not include even one instance of the programs producing useful information for spies.
And it isn’t just World of Warcraft or Second Life. The NYT report cites anonymous sources who claim the Department of Defense has for years worked secretly with mobile app developers to create games that serve as intelligence collection streams for the NSA. We’ve known for some time that app developers often siphon sensitive information from users, who are kept in the dark about what exactly that free flashlight is doing on their phone. But now we have reason to believe the government is in on the app snooping:
The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies — including an obscure digital media business based in Prague — to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones, according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.
And it wouldn’t be a real spy story if the billion dollar global spy industry didn’t get a piece of the action. Unsurprisingly, war and intelligence contractors took notice of the government’s interest in infiltrating and spying on gaming networks.
Eager to cash in on the government’s growing interest in virtual worlds, several large private contractors have spent years pitching their services to American intelligence agencies. In one 66-page document from 2007, part of the cache released by Mr. Snowden, the contracting giant SAIC promoted 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.”
It is unclear whether SAIC received a contract based on this proposal, but one former SAIC employee said that the company at one point had a lucrative contract with the C.I.A. for work that included monitoring the Internet for militant activity. An SAIC spokeswoman declined to comment.
In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities. “We were told it was highly likely that persons of interest were using virtual spaces to communicate or coordinate,” said Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California who received grant money as part of the program.
After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.
Did the government get any measurable intelligence benefit from those millions of dollars it gave to private corporations for research into players’ behavior in online games? Not exactly.
It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.
Those involved in the project were told little by their government patrons. According to Nick Yee, a Palo Alto researcher who worked on the effort, “We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government’s motivations and goals.”
While it may seem silly that the NSA, FBI and CIA are all up in your virtual world, the fact that the government is investing significant time, money, and energy into unmasking and understanding players is not a game.