The NSA Tracks 'World of Warcraft' and Other Online Games for Terrorist Clues

American and British spy agencies apparently believe there are real-life terrorists lurking among the elves, gnomes and the trolls of online gaming worlds.

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Mon, December 09, 2013

Computerworld — American and British spy agencies apparently believe there are real-life terrorists lurking among the elves, gnomes and the trolls of online gaming worlds.

For the past several years, the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have secretly monitored activity and harvested data from massively multiplayer online game networks like World of Warcraft and Second Life.

There is little evidence yet that the monitoring has yielded any counterterrorism successes. But the agencies believe terrorists might be using such networks to communicate with each other, move money and plot attacks around the world without being noticed, the New York Times reported Monday, quoting documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Agents from NSA and GCHQ have created make-believe characters and entered online fantasy game terrains in an effort to recruit informers and tap communications between players.

"Because militants often rely on features common to video games fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there," the Times reported.

Snowden's latest revelations are sure to provoke more questions about the NSA's breathtaking range of surveillance activities -- especially if it turns out that the agency collected data on U.S. gamers as part of its monitoring efforts.

Just last week, the Washington Post reported on how the agency is daily collecting location data from millions of cellphones around the world, including those belonging to Americans travelling abroad.

The NSA later cited a 1981 Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan as the authority under which it is collecting the data. Privacy groups have called the effort unconstitutional and another example of the agency monitoring and gathering data on U.S. residents without a court-issued warrant.

Former NSA agent John Pescatore, who is presently director of emerging technologies at the SANS Institute, said the NSA's effort to mine intelligence data from online gaming networks is not all that surprising. "Years ago, law enforcement and the intelligence community were concerned about criminal and terrorist use of online services like AOL or Compuserve," he said. "So, I'm not surprised they would look at the online gaming world -- they are just another form of online service."

According to the Times, documents obtained from Snowden show that the NSA and the GCHQ began taking an active interest in intelligence gathering from the online gaming world between 2007 and 2008.

In one document from around that time, the NSA talked about how it was able to gather information on user accounts, characters and guilds related to known Islamic extremists groups by monitoring World of Warcraft.

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