SPY AGENCIES in the US and UK have been accused of snooping on online games because they feared the games might have been used to draw people into terrorist cells and raise money.
A document released by Matthew Keys and published by the New York Times shows that a number of games and their gamers were on a watchlist.
While Second Life and World of Warcraft were looked into, so were games like Nintendogs, the Japanese dog simulator. It is all covered in the NSA's Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments document.
The games are popular, which interests the NSA, and take a lot of peoples' time and attention. Because of this the NSA inserted its agents into the virtual worlds and encouraged them to hang out in them. It also sent agents into the Xbox Live network.
Games are considered, along with things like VoIP and chat and proxies, as being a means of terrorist communications. In 2008 when the document was written it said it was "highly likely [terrorists] will be making wide use of the many communications features offered by Games and Virtual Environments (GVE) by 2010".
"Games entertain, encourage interaction, enable financial gain, and teach lessons. While many of these activities are meant to be harmless, they also have the potential to be exploited for malicious activities," explains the document.
"While some games are played by singular or a group of isolated players, computer gaming now is increasingly social with the growth of Local Area Network (LAN) games played in Internet cafes and the expansion of massively online multiplayer games (MMOG). Users are now interacting with others in the game (i.e. guilds), online in other cyber media (i.e. web sites, message boards and social networking sites) and in cybercafés providing a fertile ground for terrorist activities."
The NSA is both concerned and certain that bad things go on in games, and said that game tastes around the globe vary. In Palestine, for example, six and seven years olds indulge in "pro-Arab" games like Special Force and Under Siege.
Games can also be used to provide additional training where it is needed, and here things like flight simulators are drawn into the controversy. Realistic games can also be used by groups to try out events in a virtual environment.
The virtual world can also be used to set up flash mobs, adds the report, and terrorists could act as guides, directing victims to a place where they want them to be.
"Games could also be used as part of the attack plan itself," it adds. "With the rise of mobile gaming, terrorist groups can use the platform to its advantage; instead of planting a bomb near a crowd of people, for example, it can place one at a random location and lead game players to the bomb."
GCHQ didn't want dwell on the accusations, and a spokesperson told us that it would "neither confirm or deny any GCHQ involvement in the specific activities alleged in the reports".
It added, "All GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee."
We are reminded of comments from GCHQ director, Sir Iain Lobban, who said that only terrorists, serious criminals, foreign intelligence targets, proliferators, and "genuine threats" should be worried about having their communications intercepted. Oh, and anyone else in the world who might be in contact with any of them. µ
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