Government infiltrates Xbox Live and World of Warcraft in search of terrorists

[UPDATE] Microsoft says, "We're not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent"; Blizzard also releases statement.

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[UPDATE] Microsoft has provided a statement regarding the snooping reports, saying if there was any surveillance of Xbox Live, the company did not approve of it.

"We're not aware of any surveillance activity. If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent," A Microsoft spokesperson said.

A Blizzard Entertainment representative also provided a statement today on the matter. It is the same statement originally supplied to The New York Times and The Guardian.

"We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission," the representative said.

The original story is below.

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The extent to which government agencies monitor online behavior is coming into focus. United States and British government agents have been monitoring fantasy games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as the Xbox Live platform since 2008, performing surveillance and scooping up personal data for the online networks used by millions. That's according to documents from whistle-blower Edward Snowden released today via the New York Times and the Guardian.

Based on a fear that World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live could be used by enemies to communicate, move money, or clandestinely plot attacks, United States (NSA) and British (GCHQ) government agents created characters and accounts to snoop on its users and gain information where possible, the documents show.

This 2008 NSA document, called "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," warned of the implications of leaving these online game networks undermonitored. The documents described the services as a "target-rich communications network" through which potential intelligence targets could "hide in plain sight."

The NSA paper said extracting communications data from World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Xbox Live would be necessary because users are able to communicate anonymously.

However, the document never says if any terrorist plots were foiled or even if any such organizations used the games and services to communicate in a meaningful way as the agency suggested they would. Still, this uncertainty did not stop the NSA and GCHQ from launching their probes. The GCHQ previously launched a "vigorous effort " to extract data from games, including "exploitation modules" for Xbox Live and World of Warcraft, the documents show.

For its part, the NSA in 2008 began to extract World of Warcraft metadata in an attempt to link accounts, characters, and guilds to Islamic extremism and arms dealing groups. Through the information collecting efforts, it was discovered that some World of Warcraft subscribers were in fact "telecom engineers, embassy drivers, scientists, the military, and other intelligence agencies," the documents show.

A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment told the Guardian, "We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission." Meanwhile, representatives for Second Life and Microsoft declined to comment. It remains unclear how the government agencies were able to access the user data or how widespread the reported snooping indeed was.

Microsoft previously blasted "government snooping," vowing to enhance encryption going forward. We will continue to monitor the story as it develops. Check out the full 82-page report for more.

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