A recent revelation from the Snowden leaks has disclosed the significant efforts by intelligence personnel to infiltrate supposed terrorist networks communicating over online games and virtual environments such as Linden Lab’s Second Life, Blizzard/Activision’s World of Warcraft title, and Microsoft’s XBOX Live service. The spying operations were apparently based on concerns within security circles that these online environments could be used by enemy parties to communicate in an obscure way, and the limited security and hardening of these platforms presented a significant collection opportunity for intelligence agencies.
While Blizzard issued a flat denial of any cooperation with intelligence collection or of opening backdoors for spies in World of Warcraft, Linden Labs and Microsoft both declined to comment. Given recent revelations about the scope of private cooperation with spy agencies, declining to comment often raises more questions that it answers, and may indicate the presence of a secret legal gag order. Additionally, the CTO of Linden Labs had previously held a Top Secret clearance and served with the Navy on detachment to the NSA at Fort Meade, and would later present at a brown bag lunch at the NSA on the opportunities present in virtual worlds.
Apparently there were so many NSA and GCHQ operatives playing in these virtual worlds on the taxpayer dime that it became necessary to stand up a deconfliction group to ensure that the agents were not simply chasing their own tails and spying on each other’s collection efforts. However, there is no evidence that collection on gaming environments actually foiled any terrorist plots or provided usedful intelligence on terrorist operations. This quibble aside, GCHQ also noted opportunities beyond communications collection in their online operations, identifying foreign government professionals that they intended to target for recruitment in something of a virtual human intelligence program.
Dan Gifford – MCySec Media Manager