NSA and GCHQ infiltrated virtual online gaming communities

Pierluigi Paganini December 10, 2013

The Guardian published documents that reveal NSA and GCHQ infiltrate gaming platforms and communities including World of Warcraft and Second Life

NSA and British  GCHQ are working to infiltrate the virtual world of online games considered as an attractive environment for cyber terrorists and hackers, this is the last chapter of the Snowden‘s Saga.

The Guardian published the last revelation on the surveillance program in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, the intelligence agencies have operated in virtual worlds and gaming communities to conduct intelligence operation and try to recruit informants.

Last documents published by the Guardian titled “Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments” are dated 2008 and remark the necessity to monitor online gaming communities describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.

The documents just provide a warning on the possible abuse of online gaming communities, but don’t contain an indication on real case discovered by the intelligence agencies.

The Secret Services have infiltrated the principal online game communities including Second Life to monitor users’ habits and snoop their communications, NSA and GCHQ have created human avatars to explore virtual reality and prevent terrorist initiatives.

“Al-Qaida terrorist target selectors and … have been found associated with XboxLive, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and other GVEs [Games and Virtual Environments],” “Other targets include Chinese hackers, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Hizballah, and Hamas members.” states the documents.

The principal concern for both agencies is that into the gaming communities could be hidden terrorists making propaganda or that exploit the channel for covert communications.

Second Life online gaming platforms

“Games, the analyst wrote “are an opportunity!”. According to the briefing notes, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other. If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people’s social networks through “buddylists and interaction”, to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.  The ability to extract communications from talk channels in games would be necessary, the NSA paper argued, because of the potential for them to be used to communicate anonymously: Second Life was enabling anonymous texts and planning to introduce voice calls, while game noticeboards could, it states, be used to share information on the web addresses of terrorism forums.” reports The Guardian.

The news is not surprising, in the past I wrote on special projects promoted by US Intelligence to hack gaming console all over the world capturing data stored on the devices and monitoring online conversations between gamers. Gaming consoles are powerful platforms, capillary spread, that could be exploited to spy on players’s environments, the documents leaked by the Guardian reveal a large scale infiltration against  the Xbox Live console network that accounts more than 48 million players.

The principal concerns raised by the last revelation are related to the gamers’s privacy, it is not clear in fact how NSA and GCHQ accessed to gaming console data and how the communications could be intercepted, with or without the support of the gaming industry.

 “We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.” declared a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment.

Microsoft and the founder of Second Life declined to comment the news.

As described in the past, gaming platforms could be used to arrange cyber espionage campaigns or as a vector of cyber attack like demonstrated by the excellent researchers at ReVuln security firm that presented at Black Hat Europe 2013 in Amsterdam a way to convert local bugs and features in remotely exploitable security vulnerabilities by using the popular EA Origin 3 platform.

Intelligence agents have infiltrated popular gaming communities including the Orc hordes in World of Warcraft and avatars in Second Life.

Which is the position of the Intelligence agencies?

 “All GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.” said a spokesman for GCHQ not confirming the revelations exactly as the NSA.

Initially both agencies extracted World of Warcraft metadata trying to link “accounts, characters and guilds” to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts.

“According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents” reported  ProPublica.

The interest in game platforms is also motivated by the possible use of video games for propaganda, the Western intelligence agencies believe that some games may lead to the Islamic doctrine and influence young players fueling hatred against the West.

The reality is that the gaming platforms are just another option to communicate instantaneously with a multitude of users, just like social media and mobile, for this reason it is essential that they are carefully monitored.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  gaming, NSA, GCHQ)


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