According to newspaper reports, US and UK intelligence agencies have spied on gamers, monitoring online fantasies such as "World of Warcraft." Major US tech companies have called for limits to surveillance on citizens.
Based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, The New York Times (NYT), Guardian, and ProPublica reported Monday that the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) sought suspects or informants in online games. Documents reviewed by the publications did not reveal whether the NSA or British counterpart the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had any successes.
Sources appeared skeptical. Games "are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players' identity and activity is tracked," Peter W. Singer, an author of "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know," told NYT. "For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar."
At its height, "Warcraft" boasted about 12 million paying subscribers - more than the population of Greece. Other virtual worlds such as Linden Labs' "Second Life" or the various games hosted by Microsoft's Xbox - home to the popular sci-fi shooter "Halo" - host millions more.
'In plain sight'
According to documents cited Monday, the NSA warned that the games could give intelligence targets a place to "hide in plain sight." The 82-page document published on the NYT website noted that opponents could use video games to recruit or carry out virtual weapons training - pointing to the September 11, 2001, hijackers as examples of terrorists who had used flight simulation software to hone their skills.
At the GCHQ's request, the NSA extracted "Warcraft" data from global intelligence. Intelligence on the fantasy world could eventually translate to real-world espionage success, one of the documents suggested, noting that "World of Warcraft" subscribers included "telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military and other intelligence agencies."
According to another memo, the GCHQ had gotten "discussions between different game players on Xbox Live." Meanwhile, so many US spies had roamed around "Second Life" that the NSA had to prevent them from stepping on each other's toes, virtually.
NYT cited a spokesman for "Warcraft" parent company Blizzard Activision as saying that any surveillance "would have been done without our knowledge or permission."
The GCHQ claimed it operated in "a strict legal and policy framework" with rigorous oversight.
NYT and ProPublica reported that how agencies secured access to gamers' data, how many players they tracked and whether that included Americans remained unclear.
"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the firms wrote in an open letter addressed to President Barack Obama and the US Congress.
mkg/mz (AFP, dpa, AP)