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Report: NSA spying on online games

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World of Warcraft (Credit: Blizzard)

Spies aren't just listening in on your phone calls and reading your e-mails. They're also monitoring your gaming.

Based on new information disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, a joint report by The New York Times, ProPublica and The Guardian alleges that U.S. and British spies have conducted surveillance and gathered data in online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life.

Spy activity in the games was said to be so intense, in fact, that a "deconfliction" group had to be assembled so that spies from the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon would avoid running into each other.

The 82-page document suggests that government agencies have long been concerned that terrorists or criminal groups could use virtual worlds to "hide in plain sight" and possibly use the in-game chat functionality in online games to communicate, send funds, and plot attacks. However, the report notes, the intelligence agencies did not appear to catch any criminal activity in the process.

World of Warcraft is most commonly cited in the report, which alleges that the GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, extracted information from the massive online game in an attempt to tie accounts to Islamic extremist and suspected arms dealers. Officials also kept tabs on Xbox Live, but it's unclear exactly how far that surveillance reached and how the agencies got access to the information.

Microsoft and Linden Labs, makers of Second Life, declined to comment for the story, but a rep at Warcraft maker Blizzard said: "We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."

According to the documents supplied by Snowden, officials began exploring the online gaming world as a possible terrorist communications channel back in 2007. The report notes that the Pentagon has long been attracted to online games as a means to collect information about users, going so far as to commission the creation of new games with the intent of gathering intelligence. While some monitoring was already being done, the NSA allegedly decided to step things up.

One NSA document quoted in the story notes that certain persons of interest appeared to play World of Warcraft, though it couldn't be determined if that was strictly for fun or tied to any criminal activity. According to the report, the monitoring "continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing."

Neither the NSA nor the government communications headquarters would confirm or deny the report to ProPublica.

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