NSA Spies Go Virtual, Snooping On World of Warcraft And Xbox Live Gamers

We've seen a lot of strange information come out of the Snowden leaks, much of it deeply worrying. We've learned that the government allegedly has enormous siphoning capability, and sucks up data from the Internet at will, gains access to the entire database of cell phone metadata on everyone in the United States, and has even infiltrated the linkages between Google and Yahoo datacenters.

Today, we found out that the government has spread that campaign of spying...to Azeroth.

Taurrorism. Get it? I'll be here all week, folks

According to The Guardian, the GCHQ (British NSA) and our own organization deployed agents to swarm through virtual worlds, attempted to recruit informants out of friendly players, and described games as "target-rich communications network" where intelligence targets could "hide in plain sight."

More than anything, these documents show just how paranoid the NSA had become. Despite describing WoW, Xbox Live, and other games as being hypothetically stuffed full of terrorists, no one involved with these programs was able to produce any evidence that terrorists used them for plotting missions as opposed to, say, 40-man raids. That didn't stop them from developing "exploitation modules to use against the games, though there's no indication they ever caught anyone.

Odd groups go to left, even groups go to right...

The GCHQ did manage to trace a website dealing in stolen credit cards, but there's no evidence in these documents that it ever uncovered the kind of pervasive training network it believed existed. As amusing as it is to think on black-suited NSA agents competing with foul-mouthed 12 year olds on Xbox Live, the utter lack of a sense of scale is sobering. The NSA seriously believed that these games "offer realistic weapons training...military operations and tactics, photorealistic land navigation, terrain familiarization, and leadership skills."

"The amount of GVE's (Games and Virtual Environments) in the world is growing but the specific ones that CT needs to be methodically discovered and validated. Only then can we find evidence that GVE's are being used for operational uses."

The very phrasing of the quote is problematic. We have to spy on everything, so we can prove that there's something here we should be spying on. It's impossible to simultaneously advocate for such behavior and protect the privacy of individuals -- when everything must be spied upon, by definition, privacy cannot exist.

That's not to say the NSA was completely wrong -- games like this undoubtedly have some ability to be used as meeting vectors. Nor are we opposed to shutting down illegal credit card operations as a means of safeguarding everyone involved. But the degree of infiltration and spying with absolutely no indication of an actual problem is the problematic portion. Blizzard has stated that it had no idea such infiltration had taken place, and the NSA documents never point to any particular smoking gun that justified the intrusions. At what point do we require agencies to actually show evidence that a problem exists before we allow them to invade the privacy of millions?