New revelations Monday from the pile of classified documents pilfered by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, spied on World of Warcraft, Xbox LIVE and Second Life users. Meanwhile, Microsoft and other tech giants such as Google and Facebook have started a new initiative calling on governments to reform online surveillance.
The news comes from a partnership between the New York Times, Guardian and ProPublica.org who discovered evidence that the NSA and GCHQ begain deploying real-world agents into the virtual worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft after a top-secret 2008 NSA document titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments" that warned that terrorists saw such games as a "target-rich communication network" that allowed "a way to hide in plain sight."
Both agencies reportedly monitored Xbox LIVE as well by building "mass-collection capabilities" against the network according to ProPublica.
However, no evidence was found in the documents of any successes at rooting out terrorists from online gaming despite there being so many agents on Second Life alone that a "deconfliction" group was created to keep spies from different agencies stumbling over each other. It's unclear if the monitoring is still on-going.
Games "are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players' identity and activity is tracked," said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an author of "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know." "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."
While neither Microsoft had no comment on the collection of of Xbox LIVE data and Linden Labs had nothing to say about spies wandering around Second Life, a spokesperson for World of Warcraft maker Blizzard Entertainment said, "We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."
Microsoft was dogged by allegations of cooperating with the NSA this earlier in July. However, the company contended that it is legally complied to cooperate with legal warrants issued by government and state enforcement agencies against a small fraction of users. Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith then called on Attorney General to "uphold the Constitution" by allowing the company to share the national security requests it has received.
A new initiative to reform government surveillance was launched Monday to coincide with the latest revelations from Snowden's documents. Eight tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn and AOL have all called on the government to limit the amount and types of surveillance it performs online.
'“People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it," Microsoft's Smith wrote in a statement on the reform site.
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