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What Are Intelligence Agencies Doing in Virtual Worlds?

As we reported this week with The New York Times, American and British spy agencies have taken their surveillance efforts into the virtual realm, collecting data from online games played by millions of people around the world. Among the findings of our investigation, based on newly disclosed Snowden documents:

•  U.S. and British intelligence agencies — including the Central Intelligence Agency, Pentagon intelligence and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters — have operated in virtual worlds and gaming communities to snoop and try to recruit informants.

•  The NSA and GCHQ have collected data or player communications from World of Warcraft, Second Life and the XBox Live system, raising questions about the legality of virtual surveillance.

•  The virtual surveillance dates back to at least 2008, after the NSA and intelligence agencies began to worry that terrorist groups would use games to communicate and plot real attacks.

•  At least one spy agency, Britain’s GCHQ, purchased advertising in Microsoft's XBox Live system to recruit gamers for careers in her majesty’s government.

What should gamers make of such surveillance? What are spy agencies doing with the data? How do these programs compare to other data collection efforts by the NSA and U.S. spy agencies?

ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott (@JustinElliott), New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti (@MarkMazzettiNYT) and The Guardian's James Ball (@jamesrbuk) gathered today to discuss the story. A transcript follows.

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