The latest story gleaned from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's leaks is less menacing and more whimsical, like the plot for a spy comedy. Here's how The Guardian's James Ball — who collaborated on the story with The New York Times and Pro Publica — begins his story:
To the National Security Agency analyst writing a briefing to his superiors, the situation was clear: Their current surveillance efforts were lacking something. The agency's impressive arsenal of cable taps and sophisticated hacking attacks was not enough. What it really needed was a horde of undercover orcs. [Guardian]
This time the orcs weren't just from the NSA. Mark Mazzetti at The New York Times and Pro Publica's Justin Elliott note with evident mirth that agents from the FBI, CIA, and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) also "entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes, and supermodels."
What they are talking about are massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), virtual worlds like Second Life, a roster of Xbox Live games, and — the source of the orc humor — World of Warcraft.
You could be forgiven for suspecting that the British and American snoops enlisting to create avatars and walk around slaying wizards and dwarves may be avid gamers trying to mix business and pleasure on the taxpayer dime. But their reasoning is actually pretty solid.
Online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life let people interact with near anonymity, theoretically allowing them to plan terrorist attacks in virtual broad daylight using code words. These MMORPGs also have virtual currencies, tied to real money, making them potential vehicles for financing terrorism or laundering cash. They are extremely popular around the world.
Or at least they were. If this seems all very five years ago, that's probably because Snowden's documents are from 2008. And there's a lot they don't tell us. Is this an ongoing operation at the various spy shops? Were there special warrants issued to collect online interactions between players? Did the NSA spy on American elves and sorcerers — a violation of its legal mandate? And did this armchair sleuthing actually foil any terrorist plots?
The evidence in the documents isn't very encouraging. "Al Qaeda terrorist target selectors [...] have been found associated with XboxLive, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [Games and Virtual Environments]," one 2008 NSA document says. "Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hezbollah, and Hamas members." (You can read the documents at The New York Times.)
That sounds kind of impressive, says The Guardian's Ball, but it's "not enough to show terrorists are hiding out as pixels to discuss their next plot." Those "target selectors" — maybe an IP address or an email account — "could merely mean someone else in an internet café was gaming, or a shared computer had previously been used to play games."
The spies did use their collection of WoW and Second Life interactions to identify potential targets to recruit as collaborators in the real world — "telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military, and other intelligence agencies." And the British spies did have at least one recorded success, infiltrating Second Life to help London police take down a crime ring that had moved into the virtual world to sell pilfered credit card information.
Otherwise, this program seems to have been relatively useless and mostly harmless. It's possible that the privacy rights of gamers were violated, but a World of Warcraft user named "Diaya" probably had it right. Soon after the Snowden leaks started, a human death knight named "Crrassus" fretted in an online WoW chat that the NSA might be spying on gamers; Diaya, a goblin priest, said that if they were, "they would realize they were wasting" their time.
In any case, if you're looking to get creeped out by government surveillance there are plenty more promising avenues. A congressional investigation just uncovered that state and local police, not just the NSA, collect large amounts of our cellphone metadata. And over the weekend, The Washington Post reported, in a long story about FBI use of malware, that the bureau has the ability to activate laptop cameras without turning on the indicator light. "What in the hell is going on?" asks Gizmodo's Casey Chan. "What kind of world do we live in?"
We live in the real world. The virtual worlds can take care of themselves.