Is the NSA Spying on Gamers?

Recent news about the NSA and its British counterpart the GCHQ takes the concept of spyware to a whole new level.  Recent reports from no less than The New York Times have suggested that these intelligence agencies have made efforts to monitor virtual gaming worlds, such as World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Halo.  According to declassified documents, the agencies have been doing this for years.

...And that's my plan to overthrow the government.

            …And that’s my plan to overthrow the government.

Hiding in Plain Sight

The thinking behind this surveillance doesn’t derive from the usual accusation against video games – that they encourage violence.  Rather, it’s the fact that online gaming exists in virtual worlds where real life communication can take place.  While it’s usually just the case of shy teenagers hanging out after school and bonding over a war against aliens or a campaign to uncover some fantastical hidden jewel, the NSA is of the opinion that much more threatening transactions are taking place.

According to the NSA, virtual gaming spaces are potential “target-rich communication network[s]” that could provide terrorists “a way to hide in plain sight.”  Games like World of Warcraft, for example, support an interactive gaming base of over 12 million players.  That’s plenty of crowd to blend in with, provided the terrorists name themselves something innocuous like Troll-Dude-101 and don the appropriate avatar-garb.

The NSA worries that terrorists could be using gaming spaces as places to plot attacks, undetected.  This is a very valid concern, as most traditional methods of communication are already being tracked, which naturally forces terrorists to find new channels.  But some authorities are of a different opinion.  As Singer astutely points out, virtual gaming is a service, and players must register their identity and payment information to receive it.  For terrorists seeking anonymity, online gaming profiles are therefore not really quite so secretive after all.

Whether gaming companies have been in on monitoring efforts from the beginning remains a mystery.  Major industry player and creator of WoW, Blizzard Entertainment, denies any knowledge or cooperation of and with such activities.

Beyond what’s so far been mentioned in the press, the implications of this development and its relationship to computer security are vast.  Computerized communication is a two-way street, and regardless of any political affiliations it works best when it’s kept clean.  The real question behind all of the buzz there has been ever since Snowden dropped the WikiLeaks bomb back in June is: Who should be responsible for the cleaning?

Companies like Emsisoft strive to provide the best in PC Security, but even our very best efforts can only go so far.  On the other hand, those among the gaming scene may not be completely comfortable with Big Brother looking on as they vanquish virtual-injustice with their digital swords of glory, justice, and might.

In any event, this is trend worth watching, and one that won’t be disappearing anytime soon.