World of Warcraft and Second Life under surveillance, claims leaked NSA documents

Once, in my more politically active university days, I wrote "flip the flipping Prime Minister" on my MySpace page. As a result, I'm resigned to the fact that I will be ceaselessly monitored by the full force of my government's intelligence services. The less dangerously subversive among you might be somewhat more surprised to learn how far those surveillance tendrils are spreading. According to reports co-published between The Guardian , The New York Times and ProPublica , intelligence gathering has spread to online worlds, with spies having 'infiltrated' World of Warcraft and Second Life.

According to documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, both the US's NSA and the UK's GCHQ created accounts, recruited informers and gathered data in MMOs, and through the apparently more heavily monitored Xbox Live. According to a top secret document from 2008, they saw these spaces as a possible "target-rich communication network," with the potential to give terrorists and other criminal elements "a way to hide in plain sight." Presumably there were also worried about the threat of global boar genocide.

The surveillance was wide-spread enough that the agencies needed a "deconfliction" group, to ensure operatives weren't accidentally monitoring each other, and maybe to organise the intra-departmental raids. Despite all this, the documents provide no examples of any counter-terrorism successes from these actions. That either suggests that terrorists aren't using MMOs as a method of communication, or that they simply think that WoW is too full of carebears.

On Blizzard's part, a spokesperson told the NYT that they were unaware of any surveillance. "If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission," they said.

It's a fascinating insight into the workings, fears and, to some degree, paranoia of these agencies. Given the abundance of communication that typifies these games and services, it's no real surprise that agencies dedicated to the analysis of data would gravitate towards them. This is a still-unfolding story that will eventually need to form part of the wider discussion about the role of counter-terrorism, and the level to which privacy should be an expectation of a democratic society. Of course, as a guy who writes about PC games, I'm going to make jokes instead.

Thanks, Blue's News .

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.