A new report on the continuing NSA spying scandal goes into detail on the agency’s interest in online gaming. World of Warcraft, Xbox Live, and Second Life are among the services listed that are being spied on but it wouldn’t be a terrible stretch to assume that most online games have been infiltrated.
While the spy business has likely never been better as far as data acquisition goes, the effect on the world population is scary to think about. Spying on people’s online gaming habits under the guise of “omg terrorists” seems like a logical next step at “protecting the nation”. “Terrorists” could use WoW’s in-game mail system or private chats to plan missions/heists/attacks/parties. But as all the other leaked information would lead us to believe, the NSA gathers information using tactics that some might consider overreaching.
Recent reports detail how the NSA grabs just about all internet traffic they possibly can in hopes of eventually cracking the encrypted data later on. Further, the NSA builds complex profiles on just about every internet user world wide using services such as e-mail, Google search history, Twitter, and Facebook among others. It makes sense then that they didn’t ignore a huge metric for examining personality, video games. Imagine for a moment that somewhere an analyst could type in your name and pull up a full personality profile on you that included the sites you visit online, who you’re friends with on Facebook, what types of fringe organizations you belong to, what your political beliefs may be, what you spend your money on, everywhere you drive, where you shop, etc etc etc. Now imagine along with all the above information consider that they also have a full list of your video game habits. Seems pointless right? Wrong!
Lets pretend you’re a regular citizen who is fed up with the local government’s mismanagement of _____. You run for the position against a well connected incumbent being groomed for future positions. Calls are made, some text is typed somewhere, they now have a list of all the online games you play. Oh guess what, you play Counter-Strike and 70% of the time you play on the terrorist side and your favorite weapon is an AK-47. Or maybe while your wife and kids are out of town your secret passion is roleplaying a transgender barista in Second Life. What about all of the EverQuest guilds that you joined and ranked up in only to gain trust and steal their guild bank? Somehow this gets leaked on the local news and voters turn out in droves to make sure you lose. It’s quite easy to use parts of a targets person life, however mundane they might be, to slander them in the eyes of the public. Remember, the public are the same people that continuously vote criminals into office based on the colors Red or Blue, the letters R or D, or the color of someone’s skin. We’re not exactly dealing with the brightest of minds here.
Further complicating matters is the theory that you might be able to ascertain useful personality traits from a persons behavior while playing a video game. A great example of this is building a personality profile of a person based around what class they prefer to play in a MMORPG. A person that plays a healer more often than not is wildly independent and prefers to not rely on others (believe it or not this tends to be the case). A person that plays a tank might have an overinflated ego and want to show off their strength. Additionally with a little bit of cooperation with other spies it’s plausible that you could insert your suspect into various situations in game and watch how they react. This information could allow you to better tailor a real life con to work against the target’s weaknesses.
Siphoning data in games and building profiles on the player is a dangerous path that one might argue is an even bigger invasion of our privacy that looking at a Facebook account. Gaming for many people is an escape from the reality and stress of real life and a way to live out our wildest dreams. The problem is some of us dream some pretty messed up stuff and live those dreams out in digital form every single day. It’s important to be afraid of a government that will go to such great lengths to find out everything about you because at the end of the day the only thing that is stopping them from abusing what they find is a moral compass that seems to have been broken a long time ago.
A number of reports in 2011 dove into government sponsored gold farming operations by the Chinese and North Korean governments. Selling digital currency online is a hot topic right now with the rise (and fall and rise) of Bitcoin. China is rumored to be heavily involved in Bitcoin also, but many less than 100% honest nations are also said to be using the video game digital currency market to fund their nation. A number of NSA spying reports detail how we spy on pretty much every nation. Stuxnet (Duqu, Flame, Conficker) proved that we have eyes on countless global targets, and if BadBios is any indication we’re getting even more sophisticated at getting that data back to our spooks. Surely it can be assumed that if nations such as China and North Korea are secretly farming gold in WoW that the NSA and CIA really want to know what’s going on. If they can insert a worm into a nuclear facility and destroy complex centrifuges for years without detection it’s got to be a cake walk to grab the ip ranges from your Blizzard team and exploit a zero-day bug in some gold farming Windows PCs. Now they can turn on mics, read chat, turn on a web cam or two, and ultimately build profiles and gain intelligence on foreign targets.
Make no mistake, since the early 90′s we’ve been in a digital cold war that’s turning more and more into a digital world war against everyone including our own citizens. Next time you think about loading up that bikini winter cabin Skyrim mod it’s a good idea to remember that some equally pale and overweight spook also looking at a computer is getting an alert that the target is up to no good.
God Bless America
Peter Downey is an American video game writer, technology expert, and web designer living in Winter Park, Florida. Born in 1983 he is fortunate enough to have experienced life before and after the internet and spent his teenage years playing games such as Quake, Starcraft, and Everquest. He is also now on more watch lists.