Freshly leaked documents by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden on Monday revealed spies disguised as fantasy characters prowled online games hunting terrorists.
Elves, orcs or other fictional characters happened upon by players in the popular realm of World of Warcraft may have been US and British spies, according to documents released through ProPublica, the Guardian, and the New York Times.
There were also indications that intelligence agents went undercover in online multi-player shooter games, particularly on Microsoft’s Xbox Live internet community for players.
“GVEs (games and virtual environments) are an opportunity!” concluded ‘top secret’ National Security Agency documents dating back about five years.
“We know that terrorists use many feature rich internet communications media for operational purposes, such as email, VoIP, chat, proxies and web forums, and it is highly likely they will be making use of the many communications features offered by games and virtual environments.”
The report depicted online game worlds as private meeting places that could be used by groups for planning and training.
Examples used to back the reasoning included an “America’s Army” shooter game made by the US military and given away as a free download at its recruiting website.
“The game is so good at identifying candidates that it is now used for training,” the document said.
It went on to tell of Hezbollah creating a shooter game for recruitment and training, with the ultimate goal of play being to be a suicide martyr.
“While complete military training is best achieved in person, complete perfection is not always required to accomplish the mission,” the report argued, noting that some 9/11 attackers were taught piloting with flight simulation software.
Spies have created characters in fantasy worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft to carry out surveillance, recruit informers and collect data, The New York Times said.
“It wasn’t enough that they were snooping on email conversations; able to tap phone calls; weaken encryption standards; use sophisticated hacking techniques to install spyware on targeted computers... they needed to extend their range to Middle Earth and Xbox Live as well,” computer security specialist and author Graham Cluley said in a blog post reacting to the news.
“How about all these people playing ‘Draw Something’ who might be doodling secret messages to fellow criminals or conspirators?” he added facetiously.
Microsoft and World of Warcraft maker Blizzard Entertainment released independent statements saying they knew nothing of spies snooping in their online worlds.
The report came as eight leading US-based technology companies called on Washington to overhaul its surveillance laws following months of revelations of online eavesdropping from the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.
“Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels,” the Times said.
It added: “Because militants often rely on features common to video games - fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions - American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.”
The documents do not give any examples of success from the initiative, the report said.
Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL and LinkedIn meanwhile wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama and the US Congress calling on Washington to lead the way in a worldwide reform of state-sponsored spying.
“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” the letter said.