ProPublica calls it the World of Spyraft. Along with articles by the New York Times and The Guardian, they revealed that American and British spy agencies had infiltrated the fantasy world’s of Second Life and World of War Craft:
Not limiting their activities to the earthly realm, American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents.
Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels.
The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. Because militants often rely on features common to video games – fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions – American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.
The Guardian article reports the spying also included Xbox Live with the agencies having built mass-collection capabilities. An estimated 48 million people use Xbox Live. The documents also discussed the problem of proving terrorists were even using these venues:
One problem the paper’s unnamed author and others in the agency faced in making their case – and avoiding suspicion that their goal was merely to play computer games at work without getting fired – was the difficulty of proving terrorists were even thinking about using games to communicate.
A 2007 invitation to a secret internal briefing noted “terrorists use online games – but perhaps not for their amusement. They are suspected of using them to communicate secretly and to transfer funds.” But the agencies had no evidence to support their suspicions.
The same still seemed to hold true a year later, albeit with a measure of progress: games data that had been found in connection with internet protocol addresses, email addresses and similar information linked to terrorist groups. [..]
However, that information wasn not enough to show terrorists are hiding out as pixels to discuss their next plot. Such data could merely mean someone else in an internet cafe was gaming, or a shared computer had previously been used to play games.
According to Techdirt, the program has not caught or revealed any terrorists, plots or recruitment efforts:
According to the document (from 2008), online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life are potentially “target-rich environments” in which suspected terrorists “hide in plain sight.” (And it’s not just MMOs. Xbox Live has apparently been swept up in the surveillance efforts as well.) Despite this assertion, the documents contain no evidence that any terrorists have been uncovered by agents and analysts. In fact, experts and developers of games like these have found no evidence that terrorists are using their services to communicate or recruit new members.
The lack of any information that terrorists were using the games didn’t stop the agencies from their task. In fact, the number of spooks playing games got so big “that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions – the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.”