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World of Spycraft: NSA and CIA spied in online games

Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times | Dec. 10, 2013
According to newly disclosed classified documents, American and British spies have been conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games

Ondrejka, now the director of mobile engineering at Facebook, said through a representative that the NSA presentation was similar to others he gave in that period, and declined to comment further.

Even with spies already monitoring games, the NSA thought it needed to step up the effort.

"The Sigint Enterprise needs to begin taking action now to plan for collection, processing, presentation and analysis of these communications," said one April 2008 NSA document, referring to "signals intelligence." The document added, "With a few exceptions, NSA can't even recognize the traffic," meaning that the agency could not distinguish gaming data from other Internet traffic.

By the end of 2008, according to one document, the British spy agency, known as GCHQ, had set up its "first operational deployment into Second Life" and had helped the police in London in cracking down on a crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information. The British spies running the effort, which was code-named "Operation Galician," were aided by an informer using a digital avatar "who helpfully volunteered information on the target group's latest activities."

Though the games might appear to be unregulated digital bazaars, the companies running them reserve the right to police the communications of players and store the chat dialogues in servers that can be searched later. The transactions conducted with the virtual money common in the games, used in World of Warcraft to buy weapons and potions to slay monsters, are also monitored by the companies to prevent illicit financial dealings.

In the 2008 NSA 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.

Still, the intelligence agencies found other benefits in infiltrating these online worlds. According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ's "network gaming exploitation team" had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players -- potential targets for recruitment as agents.

At Menwith Hill, a Royal Air Force base in the Yorkshire countryside that the NSA has long used as an outpost to intercept global communications, American and British intelligence operatives started an effort in 2008 to begin collecting data from World of Warcraft.

One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring "continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing." In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes. A British document from later that year said that GCHQ had "successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live."

 

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