According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents.
At Menwith Hill, a Royal Air Force base in the Yorkshire countryside that the NSA has long used as an outpost to intercept global communications, American and British intelligence operatives started an effort in 2008 to begin collecting data from World of Warcraft.
Many players are Americans, who can be targeted for surveillance only with approval from the nation’s secret intelligence court.
The spy agencies, though, face far fewer restrictions on collecting certain data or communications overseas.
One document reveals that while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life, the agency vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data — totaling 176,677 lines of data. At an intelligence conference that year, researchers outlined a fictitious scenario where terrorists took to World of Warcraft to plot an attack on the White House, but there is little evidence that terror groups view the games as safe havens. One team produced a study of World of Warcraft finding “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring non-combat activities." (Image via Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) Online games might seem innocuous, a top-secret 2008 NSA document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity! But for all their enthusiasm — so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.
"If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission." A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to comment.
One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes.
A British document from later that year said that GCHQ had “successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.” By 2009, the collection was extensive.
A Government Communications Headquarters spokesman would neither confirm nor deny any involvement by that agency in gaming surveillance, but said that its work is conducted under “a strict legal and policy framework” with rigorous oversight. Intelligence and law enforcement officials became interested in games after some became enormously popular, drawing tens of millions of people worldwide, from preteens to retirees.
The games rely on lifelike graphics, virtual currencies and the ability to speak to other players in real time.