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Podcast: Spying with Avatars

(<a href="">Crashworks/Flickr</a>)

As we reported with The New York Times this week, American and British spies have infiltrated online fantasy games, thinking them ripe for use by militants. Justin Elliott joins Stephen Engelberg in the Storage Closet Studio this week to talk about avatars, spies, and the punchline-inspiring intersection of the two.

As shown in the documents leaked from former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden to The Guardian, the NSA and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, who number in the millions across the globe.

The intelligence community is so invested in this new arena, Elliott reports, that they needed a "deconfliction" group to solve redundancies as spies from many agencies bumped into each other in “Second Life.”

But that enthusiasm is not necessarily unfounded.

“One thing that I found -- in the course of my reporting -- that I found really interesting was a survey from this period when the games were getting very popular that found something around 30 percent of people who played these games and responded in this survey, by an academic researcher, said that they had shared personal information or secrets with their friends within the game that they had never shared with their friends in the real world,” Elliott says. “So I think we can all have sort of a few laughs about this, but for some people, these games really can function as sort of private spaces, which why I think, in part, the documents raise questions about privacy and legality of what the agencies were doing.”

You can listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. For more on this investigation, see:

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