I’m not quite ready to declare privacy dead, but it’s reeeeeeeeeallly not doing so well in this day and age. Each racking cough brings up phlegmy handfuls of news about intrusive government and corporate programs – not to mention services that have normalized broadcasting every aspect of our lives on public channels without really considering the consequences. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s all bad (I use Twitter and Facebook all the time; I have no one but myself to blame for that), but many initiatives are absolutely overstepping our boundaries and rights. The NSA, especially, has hit a rather frightening point-of-no-return, and unsurprisingly, it’s taken to snooping around inside games on top of, you know, pretty much everything else.
Snowden-disclosed documents published in partnership by The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica suggest that the NSA and its UK sister agency the GCHQ have made a concerted effort to infiltrate and track possible terrorist activities through various online games for years.
The documents, written way back in 2008 (the program, in other words, could’ve grown, shrank, or changed quite markedly since then), pinpoints Xbox Live as its biggest target, with mass collection techniques tailor-made to sift through its massive web of racist 14-year-olds/probable terrorists.
World of Warcraft and Second Life, meanwhile, were infiltrated by individual agents hoping to find informants or evidence of illicit communication via in-game channels, and WoW was eventually subject to metadata-gathering “exploitation modules,” according to The Guardian’s report. The NSA and GCHQ feared that targets could use games like those to essentially “hide in plain sight.” The government document further argued in favor of more in-depth surveillance techniques for those games, given that both include private messages, voice chat, and even anonymous communication in the case of Second Life. Moreover, Second Life was singled out for its “essentially unregulated” economy, which could facilitate money transfer and, for some reason, “will almost certainly… be used for terrorist propaganda and recruitment.”
It’s unclear, however, what actually occurred beyond that. How much data did these agencies ultimately get their hands on? And who did they end up monitoring? Were innocent people casualties of The Hunt, as they often are? The documents signaled intent and creation of tools, but little in the way of specifics like how, where from, and on what scale. However, a handful of examples seem to indicate that this was less a piggy-toe-first approach and more of a cannon ball. For instance, British intelligence officers pulled 176,677 lines of data in one case, including communications.
Microsoft and Blizzard have claimed ignorance in response, while Linden Labs declined to comment. “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” a Blizzard rep told The Guardian. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.” Microsoft’s response to Polygon was virtually identical: “We’re not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn’t done with our consent.”
Most upsettingly, the reports allege that government officials never had much success proving that this was even a worthwhile pursuit in the first place, and the intelligence experts interviewed for the reports claimed they were not aware of any counter-terrorism successes stemming from these programs. The documents claim games have produced a few usable pieces of intelligence, but not much beyond that.
And yet, they persisted. That might be the most troubling part of all in a story whose every word fills my gut with bilious unease. But hey, on the upside, any agency that truly believes Second Life to be a dominant cultural force can’t be too much of a threat. Oh, but NSA and GCHQ, do dispatch a few squads into Counter-Strike. I hear there’s all kinds of terrorism going on over there.