Spy agencies keep an eye on gamers
THE world's most powerful espionage agencies have sent undercover agents into virtual universes to monitor activity in online fantasy games such as World of Warcraft.
Stories carried by The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica said US and UK spies have spent years trawling online games for terrorists or informants. The reports, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, offer an unusual take on America's world-spanning surveillance campaign, suggesting that even the fantasy worlds aren't beyond the attention of the NSA and Britain's GCHQ.
Virtual universes like World of Warcraft can be massively popular, drawing in millions of players who log months worth of real-world time competing with other players for online glory, virtual treasure and magical loot.
At its height, World of Warcraft boasted some 12 million paying subscribers, more than the population of Greece.
Other virtual worlds, like Linden Labs' Second Life or the various games hosted by Microsoft's Xbox, home to the popular science fiction-themed shoot-em-up Halo, host millions more.
Spy agencies have long worried that such games serve as a good cover for terrorists or other evil-doers who could use in-game messaging systems to swap information. The NSA warned that the games could give intelligence targets a place to "hide in plain sight".
In a statement, Blizzard Entertainment said that it is "unaware of any surveillance taking place". Microsoft issued a similar statement, saying it is "not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent".
The 82-page document, published on The New York Times' website, noted that opponents could use video games to recruit other users or carry out virtual weapons training, pointing to the September 11, 2001, hijackers who used flight simulation software to hone their skills.
At the request of GCHQ, the NSA began extracting World of Warcraft data from its global intelligence haul, trying to tie specific accounts and characters to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts, the Guardian reported.