U.S. and British intelligence agencies have worked to infiltrate networks of violence-prone individuals who might unite for a common cause. And in some cases, the spies are also targeting networks that aren't regional terrorist cells — they're online gaming communities, according to the latest revelation from documents given to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments" is the name of a 2008 NSA document being cited in coordinated reports out Monday from the Guardian, ProPublica and The New York Times.
The reports describe spy agencies' push to infiltrate systems that allow millions of people to closely collaborate and even exchange money — all through a veil of alternate identities.
The project involved spies creating identities in networks that include Second Life and World of Warcraft, according to the reports. The agency is also said to have collected massive amounts of data from Microsoft's Xbox Live network and elsewhere.
The effort was not a small one, the news agencies report. In fact, so much anti-terrorism work was being conducted in the virtual worlds that a separate "deconfliction" group was tasked with monitoring spies from the CIA, Pentagon and FBI so that they wouldn't interfere with — or waste time spying on — one another, according to ProPublica.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's equivalent of the National Security Agency, also reportedly worked to insert its agents into the digital communities and review communications. And private contractors such as SAIC and Lockheed Martin "won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects," ProPublica reports.
The Guardian explains what could motivate government agencies to spy on people in gaming environments:
"If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the NSA document. 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."
Britain's GCHQ evidently succeeded in getting details about a credit card fraud group via an informant on Second Life. But as The Times notes, the records do not include a mention of any successful anti-terrorism operations that were based on intelligence gained in the virtual world.
It seems that proponents of spying on gaming networks struggled to find proof that terrorists have used gaming networks to communicate — and they suggested that the only way to find out was to conduct methodical research online, according to the Guardian.
News of the spy agencies' work in the gaming community comes as eight large tech companies have sent "an open letter to Washington" urging President Obama and Congress to enact reforms in the practices of spy agencies such as the NSA.
The letter was signed by Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Microsoft.
"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution," the letter said, in arguing for laws that more tightly restrict the way surveillance is carried out on private citizens.
The large corporations posted the open letter at the Reform Government Surveillance website Monday.
Reacting to the letter, both the American Civil Liberties Union and WikiLeaks tell The Associated Press that they would have preferred it if the Internet companies had spoken out in favor of individuals' privacy rights before Snowden exposed the spy agencies' tactics.