The news: According to a joint report by the Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica, both the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GHCQ, wasted taxpayer funds infiltrating World of Warcraft, Xbox Live, and Second Life in order to prevent terrorists from associating through online gaming.
Unfortunately, while the agencies paid staffers to pose as players and conduct surveillance, no evidence of terrorist collaboration in online games was in place when the NSA’s efforts began, and, shockingly, paying spies to pose as blood elf warlocks and listen in on sexist headset chatter has not prevented any terrorist attacks to date.
In other news, Second Life apparently still exists.
The background: According to a top secret 2008 document titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments," which comes courtesy American exile, Russophile, and The Terminal reenactor Edward Snowden, the NSA’s Leeroy Jenkins-like eagerness to begin surveillance of online games was based on sheer speculation. While it states that Xbox Live, Second Life, and World of Warcraft were "associated" with suspected terrorists, the Guardian points out that "such data could merely mean someone else in an internet café was gaming, or a shared computer had previously been used to play games."
The paper seems panicked about the fact that, at the time, the NSA hadn’t managed to snake its way into every last form of online communication. It states that the agency "needs to begin taking action now to plan for collection, processing, presentation, and analysis of these communications." (One can only wonder at the similar documents being cooked up to address Instagram, Snapchat, and Kik.) The leaked document also conveys enthusiasm about the "opportunity!" provided by such games, and the "fun factor" associated with combat simulation.
World of Warcraft has stated that it did not collaborate with the NSA and was unaware of its surveillance. Microsoft and Second Life declined to comment to the Guardian, although an executive from the latter apparently gave a lunch address at the NSA — and touted the use of Second Life to understand and observe foreigners — in 2007. On Sunday, Microsoft announced a coalition with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo that seeks to reduce NSA intrusions and increase Congress' oversight of the agency.
The takeaway: It may seem dismaying to read revelation after revelation about the NSA’s duplicity, or its widespread, fruitless, and ridiculously costly invasions of privacy, but the more we learn about the agents responsible for monitoring our phone records and online communications, the more we learn that spies are just like us. They just want to kick back, watch someone else’s porn, and find an excuse to fire up their Xbox at work, whether or not there’s any evidence that Al-Shabaab is using Call of Duty to coordinate attacks.
We can only wait until the NSA finds out about Minecraft.