Gamers Beware: Spies May Be Lurking in Your Xbox, Seeking Terrorists

Image: Gamers Beware: Spies May Be Lurking in Your Xbox, Seeking Terrorists

Monday, 09 Dec 2013 10:10 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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First, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden disclosed his former employer was eavesdropping on cellphones around the globe.

Now, The Guardian reports, Big Brother is tapping into popular games like "World of Warcraft" and "Second Life," creating their own avatars to see if terrorists might be lying in wait.

According to the documents leaked by Snowden to The Guardian in 2008, the $10.5 billion online gaming business is a "target-rich communications network" providing a place for intelligence targets to "hide in plain sight."

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"If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence," according to the leaked document, titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments."

"They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people's social networks through 'buddylists and interaction,' to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications."

"Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors … have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [Games and Virtual Environments]," the document states. "Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah, and Hamas members."

The NSA has declined to comment.

So many spies from various U.S. intelligence agencies were embedded inside games that a "deconfliction" group was created to ensure they weren't interfering with each other, according to The Guardian.

Despite all the resources poured into placing real-life spies behind the avatars, the documents do not cite any instances of detecting terrorist threats, The New York Times writes, saying that "former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees, and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations."

Terrorist groups looking to stay off the government's radar would likely not resort to online video games, which are built by manufacturers who track players' identities and activities in an effort to make money, cybersecurity expert and author Peter W. Singer told The Times.

"For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar," he said.

British spy agency GCHQ, with the assistance of an informer using a digital avatar, helped London police crack down on a crime ring that sold stolen credit card information in virtual worlds.

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And GCHQ's "network gaming exploitation team" identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents, according to The Times.

Snowden, a former NSA and CIA contractor, has been charged with espionage and theft of government property for leaking up to 200,000 classified documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He is considered a fugitive and is currently living in Russia under temporary asylum.

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