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."
One thing the documents don't include, however, is any evidence of counterterrorism successes from the programs, beyond the agencies abilities to infiltrate the games and collect data from them. One uncovered document explains that World of Warcraft spying “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” A British document cited by the report notes that intelligence officials there were “successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.”
Only one of the three companies named in the documents commented on the revelations. Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, said they "are unaware of any surveillance taking place," adding, "if it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission." Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life) and Microsoft declined to comment. But 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 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 documents are available to view here.