Microsoft’s Xbox Live, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, and Linden Labs’ Second Life have all been targeted by American and British counterterrorist units for surveillance, as newly released classified documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden reveal (via ProPublica). The move is a response to concerns that these gaming-centric social networks could serve as gathering places for criminal or terrorist activities.
The surveillance process sees operatives creating accounts and interacting in the various social spaces, with the goal of gathering data, recording communications there, and even recruiting informants. The justification: gamers and militants both use fake identities, voice and text chat, and online storefronts that allow for person-to-personal financial transactions, so there’s a worry that those with ill intent might be taking advantage of those features offered in publicly available gaming services.
Despite the potential for terrorist activity in online gaming, all of this appears to fall into the realm of speculation. Counterterrorism analysts recognize the threat in these virtual spaces, but in reality, there have been no documented successes with ongoing surveillance efforts. What’s more, a collection of people including former American intelligence operatives, gaming company employees, and outside experts all note that there’s little evidence of terrorist organizations using gaming networks to hatch plots.
Ultimately, these surveillance efforts nod back to the ongoing privacy concerns of the average citizen. There’s a line that must be drawn somewhere in any effort to ensure public safety, and the apparent absence of any tangible returns on gaming network surveillance suggests that we’ve strayed too far into the realm of privacy invasion.
Microsoft declined ProPublica’s request for comment, and Linden Labs didn’t respond to the same request. A Blizzard spokesperson said, “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”