The NSA’s New World (of Warcraft)

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A screenshot from <em>World of Warcraft</em>
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A new front in the War on Terror opened secretly in Azeroth. Haven’t heard of it? It’s familiar to the millions of people who play the videogame World of Warcraft. An NSA document obtained by the Guardian (courtesy of one Edward Snowden) reveals that for years the NSA, CIA, FBI, and Britain’s GCHQ have dispatched agents into that game, Second Life, and others to look for avatars meeting and plotting attacks in the real world.

In massive multiplayer videogames, players assume an identity, connect with other players, join a guild, trade goods, and plan actions — from taking down other guilds to slaying giant dragons. Players communicate with each other and exchange virtual goods (which are sometimes sold for real currency). With tens of millions of people around the world playing, the NSA called them a “target-rich communication network” that could allow terrorists “a way to hide in plain sight.”

The gamers feel “mostly a kind of resigned acknowledgement” to being spied on, says Kirk Hamilton, features editor of Gawker’s gaming site Kotaku. Players are used to being monitored by the game-makers and by advertisers. “I’m not sure that that many people see a huge difference between some of these huge corporations and the NSA.” He finds it hard to believe that a terrorist organization would use these relatively public channels to communicate or launder money.

Although the thought of a government spy masquerading as an orc may be unnerving to some, Hamilton tells Kurt Andersen he doubts players will feel much hesitation. “Identity is a really kind of fluid thing online,” he says. “Everybody’s putting on a different identity to begin with. … If you’re an undercover cop, OK great — let’s go on a raid together and kill this dragon.”

→ What do you think of government agents going undercover to spy on World of Warcraft and Second Life?
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Music Playlist

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