VANCOUVER – It sounds like the plot of a video game, but tens of millions of online gamers may have actually been the subject of U.S. and British surveillance, according to the latest batch of classified documents released by Edward Snowden.
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) allegedly monitored the gaming community, believing the virtual world could provide a cover for terrorist or criminal groups.
Published in the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica on Monday, the documents detail how the spy agencies monitored what “may seem like an innocuous form of entertainment” because games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life could “give targets a way to hide in plain sight.”
The 2008 document titles urged the SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Enterprise to “begin taking action now to plan for collection, processing, presentation and analysis” of communications that could be connected to extremist groups, arms dealing and nuclear proliferation.
The report titled Games: A Look at Emerging Trends, Uses, Threats and Opportunities in Influence Activities, which was labeled “not for public distribution,” suggested the “line between the ‘virtual’ world and ‘real’ world is blurring.”
That activity could include recruiting, training, money laundering and fundraising.
According to the New York Times/ProPublica article, data collection “was extensive” by 2009.
“British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications,” the New York Times and ProPublica reported.
But as the Guardian reported, “the documents contain no indication that the surveillance ever foiled any terrorist plots, nor is there any clear evidence that terror groups were using the virtual communities to communicate as the intelligence agencies predicted.”
Although the Guardian did note that monitoring video-game data allowed GCHQ to discover fraudsters behind a shuttered website that traded stolen credit card information had shifted their operations to the virtual world of Second Life, in which users portrayed as avatars can trade “virtual property” while role-playing.
The makers of World of Warcraft and Microsoft, whose Xbox Live consoles were also flagged as a possible means for terrorist networking, claim no knowledge of the reported surveillance and insisted they did not give permission to either the NSA or GCHQ to carry out such activity.
According to the Guardian, Microsoft did not comment on the story and neither did the CEO of Linden Lab, Second Life’s developer.
But a Linden Lab executive named Cory Ondrejka, who now works for Facebook, did meet with NSA staffers in 2007 to explain how “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are becoming a reality.”
Before working with Linden Lab, Ondrejka was a Navy officer “who had worked at the NSA with a top-security clearance,” the New York Times reported.
Global News contacted all three companies mentioned in the documents and accompanying articles to comment on the story, but did not get an immediate response from on behalf of Microsoft of Linden Lab.
In a statement Monday afternoon, World of Warcraft creator Blizzard Entertainment Inc. said the company was “unaware of any surveillance taking place. ”
“If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission,” the statement read.
While the virtual communities of World of Warcraft and Second Life were seen as a possible means of trading information, intelligence officials were also concerned with games that could serve as a means to provide real-world simulations for terrorist activities or spreading extremist ideals.
Since May, Snowden has been releasing a trove of classified information to select media outlets, blowing the lid off the spy activities of the U.S. and its counterparts in the Five Eyes network — including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The first revelations, published in the Guardian in June, revealed an extensive telecommunications metadata gathering program in the U.S. The Guardian named Snowden its “person of the year” for 2013 on Monday, based on a poll of its readers.