A World of Warcraft dwarf warrior. Image Source: Got Warcraft.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now watching governments watch us. A report from The Wire states that the NSA and GCHQ have been spying on players in virtual reality environments:
As it turns out, your guild isn't the only group watching your level 90 dwarf warrior slay the Horde like its a walk through the park: The NSA and its British intelligence counterpart, the GCHQ, are watching World of Warcraft, too. That's according to a new report from The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica, which also details the intelligence community's surveillance of Second Life and the Microsoft XBox Live network.
According to the report, the NSA collected the content and metadata of communications between players, while creating characters to target (and attempt to recruit) specific users. The report, like many other recent revelations on the extent of U.S. intelligence collection, cites documents obtained through Edward Snowden.
The documents also outline the agency's logic in starting the program. According to one 2008 NSA document, intelligence officials were able to match "terrorist target selectors” to accounts in a handful of online games. They also discovered that some potential foreign agent recruits were playing World of Warcraft, including "engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives." ...
here's an interesting tidbit on a 2007 meeting between NSA officials and a now former executive at Linden Lab, who pitched his own company's service as [an] intelligence gathering gold mine:
The executive, Cory Ondrejka, was a former Navy officer who had worked at the NSA with a top-secret security clearance. He visited the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members over a brown bag lunch, according to an internal agency announcement. “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!” said the announcement. It added that 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.”And in 2009, the government solicited proposals for research grants intended to fund inquiries into the links between online behavior in video games and the real-world behavior of the player. It's not clear if any of the programs mentioned in the documents are still in effect. The [leaked] documents are available to view here.
The leaked document states on page 8:
By fusing information from different systems, databases, and resources GCHQ has correlated target entities to WoW logon events and continues to uncover potential SIGINT value by identifying accounts, characters, and guilds related to Islamic Extremist Groups, Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Dealing.
Virtual World Scenario
This scenario is fictitious. A sophisticated terrorist network joins Second Life. On a password-protected island of the virtual community, they construct replicas of sites that they are interested in attacking, and carry out realistic, virtual dry runs of their attacks.
• They consider expanding their network and developing an on-going virtual terrorist training camp, complete with lessons on the manufacture of bombs, the proper use of artillery, and basic lessons on the most effective places to shoot a person to mortally wound them. Because virtual worlds can serve as a platform for hard-to-trace communications and private, sometimes password-protected meetings when members are separated by distance, the terrorist network also utilizes the virtual space for cell management and meetings.
• The meetings help ensure that members are accounted for on a regular basis while drawing little attention to the gathering or the members’ association.
• Virtual interaction helps team members become familiar and develop trust with their teammates long before they meet face-to-face.
• Working together in games or virtual worlds build teams cohesion which translates into better synergies in real-world situations.
Virtual worlds will provide the greatest opportunities to support terrorist operations, particularly in the areas of communication, coordination, recruitment and fundraising activities.Page 52:
The expansion of virtual worlds will provide a space for experimental learning to develop knowledge or hone a particular skill set with practical applicability in the real world. For instance, becoming an effective leader of a guild amounts to a “total-immersion” course in leadership – guild leaders are required to be adept at many skills to include “attracting, evaluating and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes.” Absent the virtual surroundings, these skills are prerequisites to managing and leading any organization.
Virtual goods, services and currencies have real world value exceeding US$100 million globally. Trades occur in games among players, between players and the preset game vendors, and on third party sites like E-Bay, IGE and numerous other sites. Current estimates indicate that a large demand for intangible goods exists within the digital world valued in the range of US$1 - $2 billion making the value of virtual goods quite real. For instance, a World of Warcraft (WOW) gold piece is valued at .46 cents to the US Dollar, meaning a WOW gold piece is traded at higher rates to the US Dollar then real world currencies like the Algerian Dinar, Iraqi Dinar, Egyptian Pound, Syrian Pound, Pakistani Rupee, Indonesian Rupiahs, and Chinese Yuan.