NSA, UK Spy Agencies Snooped Through Xbox Live, World of Warcraft Communications
December 9, 2013 12:43 PM
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Agencies saw online gaming as an "opportunity" to trace possible terrorist threats
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) apparently has a team of hardcore gamers.
According to a new report from
, the NSA and its UK sister agency GCHQ sent agents into the virtual worlds of the Xbox Live network, World of Warcraft, and Second Life to find acts of terrorism.
Former NSA contractor
, who initially uncovered the methods of the NSA earlier this year and has since revealed many documents and information about spy agencies, provided this latest secret NSA document from 2008 titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments."
According to the document, spy agencies saw online gaming as an "opportunity" to extract communications between gamers as well as information about them for the purpose of tracing possible terrorist threats. The NSA said it worried about terrorists using the anonymity factor of online gaming through avatars for secret communications.
More specifically, the NSA used online gaming to build pictures of people's social networks through buddylists and communications (like messages) and obtain "target identifiers" like profile pictures and locations. It used Second Life's anonymous messages and noticeboards, communications in World of Warcraft and voice headsets and video cameras in Xbox Live.
Further, GCHQ requested that the NSA extract World of Warcraft metadata from their intelligence to "link accounts, characters and guilds to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts." Meanwhile, GCHQ successfully obtained the discussions between game players on Xbox Live.
There are, however, just a few problems with this tactic. There was never any initial evidence that terrorists used online gaming as methods of communication; gamers who have no terrorist connections whatsoever could
have had their privacy invaded
; and this infiltration of online gaming never produced any real terrorist threats.
Despite all of that, the document shows that the agencies have conducted mass-collection efforts against the Xbox Live console network, which has over 48 million players alone.
Microsoft hasn't commented on this yet, but Blizzard Entertainment -- maker of World of Warcraft -- said neither the NSA nor GCHQ asked for its permission to collect information in its games.
"We are unaware of any surveillance taking place," said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment. "If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."
As for Second Life, the game was crowded with government agencies back in 2008. The FBI, CIA, and the Defense HUMINT Service flooded the virtual worlds with staff from the different agencies to the point that they had to make sure each agency wasn't just duplicating what the others were doing.
After all of the online gaming surveillance through 2008, the only thing it accomplished was the successful takedown of a website used to trade stolen credit card details, which was found on Second Life. While this was certainly a good find, the question is, did it warrant all the online gaming surveillance from various government agencies, who were actually looking for terrorist activity in the first place?
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Won't work 100% of the time
12/10/2013 2:50:25 AM
This tactic might be useful on MMORPGs or similar, where it's a large environment where anyone is free to log in. It's quite another to eavesdrop on conversations that are private. There's a few reasons I can think of.
First, even on MMORPGs, private chat is simple. I can be logged into a server with hundreds/thousands, and still only transmit my words to select friends of my own chosing. Of course, this doesn't stop someone with a direct tap on the data feed...but it does thwart casual eavesdroppers.
Second, there's plenty of methods for online gaming that involve password-protected servers/games. While a password-protected game may not stop a direct-tap on the data feed, a dedicated server can do much to prevent this. This goes double if you're talking about a LAN (although this would limit the range of interaction).
Third, encrypting feeds at the source (i.e. end-user PC) can all but insure the impossibility of decrypting or monitoring chat/typing by participants.
...On the flipside, it's so stupidly easy to transmit information in a manner inaccessible to most. Imagine a true-crypted document with a file namechange (.avi, etc) and uploaded with a false description to a bit-torrent site. Downloaded via VPNs. That's a really tough nut to crack.
RE: Won't work 100% of the time
12/10/2013 9:59:44 AM
Hell you could use Bittorent Sync to communicate with your terrorist group by distributing encrypted text files. And nobody would know and you can't do a damn thing about it. Who the hell uses World of Warcraft?
Argh damnit, I just gave the "terrorists" another idea! Now the terrorists win :(
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