US, Britain spying on virtual world, agents pose as gamers

NSA_UK spying_'orcs and elves'Real life James Bond’s operating in a virtual world online: American and British spies have been revealed to be posing online on games such as World of Warcraft (pictured) and Second Life

NSA_UK spyingView of the National Security Agency in the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland

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 WoW 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.

Sources: Washington (AFP)

US and UK ‘spy on virtual games like World of Warcraft’

NSA_UK spying_WoWNational security officials are said to have extracted World of Warcraft account data to identify terrorist activity (file photo)

US and British spies have reportedly infiltrated online games such as World of Warcraft in an effort to identify terrorist threats, according to media report.

The undercover agents reportedly operated in virtual universes to observe messaging and payment systems.

The NSA allegedly warned that such online games could allow intelligence targets to hide in plain sight.

Virtual universe games draw millions of players from around the globe.

News of the operation was broken by the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica on Monday using leaked confidential government information obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The media reports allege US and UK spies spent years investigating online games including Second Life for potential terrorist activity.

One leaked document published by the New York Times claims such video games could be used for recruitment or to conduct virtual weapons training.

‘Without our knowledge’

The NSA is said to have extracted World of Warcraft account data and attempted to link it to Islamic extremism and arms deals, according to the Guardian.

The popular online fantasy game, which at one point boasted upwards of 12 million subscribers, has reportedly attracted users such as embassy employees, scientists and military and intelligence officials.

At one point during the investigation, so many national security agents were reportedly playing video games that a “deconfliction” group was created to ensure they were not inadvertently spying on one another.

However, the documents obtained by former NSA contractor Mr Snowden and cited by the media did not specify if any terrorist plots had been foiled by the effort.

A spokesman for World of Warcraft’s parent company Blizzard Entertainment told the Guardian they were not aware any surveillance had been conducted.

“If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission,” the spokesman said. – BBC

American and British spies posed as ‘orcs and elves’ on World of Warcraft to infiltrate terror cells according to new NSA revelations

  • Latest revelations from Edward Snowden reveal the NSA has been using agents to pose as players on World of Warcraft
  • Up to 50 million people worldwide play the popular virtual game
  • NSA and Britain’s GCHQ became concerned the game and those like it could be used as clandestine forums for terrorists to plan attacks
  • Online operatives even tried to recruit gamers as informants
  • More evidence of mass surveillance on civilian population by intelligence service

By James Nye

The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments expresses the NSA’s worry that despite their wide-reaching PRISM clandestine surveillance of hundreds of millions of people online, terrorists could evade their wide reaching snooping.New revelations: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in October - the former defense contractor has revealed that American intelligence operatives operated online in World of Warcraft and Second Life to try and catch terrorists

New revelations: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking in October – the former defense contractor has revealed that American intelligence operatives operated online in World of Warcraft and Second Life to try and catch terrorists

The Guardian has reported that QCHQ, the British counterpart of the NSA even sent operatives into Second Life in 2008 and infiltrated a criminal ring that was selling stolen credit card information in that virtual world.

The Snowden files reveal that the real-life sting in a virtual world was named Operation Galician and was helped by a recruited online informer who ‘helpfully volunteered on the target group’s latest activities.’

Citing the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the report also says agencies ‘have built mass-collection capabilities’ against Microsoft’s Xbox Live online network.

Important details — such as how much data was gathered, or how many players’ information was compromised — were not clear, the reports said.

Blizzard Entertainment, the producer of World Of Warcraft, told the Guardian: ‘We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.’

Online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life are huge business as players adopt avatars of different people or indeed, orcs, goblins and elves.

NSA HQ: Reports say British and American intelligence officers have been spying on gamers across the world, deploying undercover officers to virtual universes and sucking up traffic from popular online games such as World of Warcraft

NSA HQ: Reports say British and American intelligence officers have been spying on gamers across the world, deploying undercover officers to virtual universes and sucking up traffic from popular online games such as World of Warcraft

The 2008 NSA report claims that if the intelligence garnered from the spying on these online games was used correctly, then pictures of ordinary citizen’s and potential terrorist social networks could be built up.

The NSA document reportedly claims to suggest that such infiltration ‘continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.’

Second Life especially intruiged the NSA and GCHQ, because of its plans to introduce voice calls and anonymous texts – that terrorists could utilize.

However, the document revealed by Snowden details no clear indication that the widespread surveillance ever discovered any terrorists or even foiled any attacks – raising serious issues over the privacy of online gaming.

Microsoft declined to comment on the latest revelations, as did Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life.

Monitoring: The NSA and Britain's GCHQ have neither confirmed nor denied that they have been spying on the personal details of up to 50 million virtual gamers

Monitoring: The NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have neither confirmed nor denied that they have been spying on the personal details of up to 50 million virtual gamers

The NSA declined to comment on the surveillance of games. 

A spokesman for GCHQ told The Guardian the agency did not ‘confirm or deny’ the revelations but added: ‘All GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, 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.’

Indeed, so rife was the spying online of Second Life by the FBI, CIA, and the Defense Humint Service that a memo was sent to try and ‘deconflict’ their work – i.e. make sure that they weren’t treading on each other’s toes.

However, the British credit card fraud bust aside, there are no other examples of the surveillance of these popular virtual worlds yielding any results in terms of anti-terrorism.

The agencies did have concerns beyond simple money laundering and planning though.
The NSA thought that games played online could be used to ‘reinforce prejudices and cultural stereotypes’ – pointing out that Hezbollah had produced their own game called Special Forces 2.

According to the document, Hezbollah’s ‘press section acknowledges the game is used for recruitment and training’, serving as a ‘radicalizing medium’ with the ultimate goal of becoming a ‘suicide martyr’.

Despite the game’s disturbing connotations, the ‘fun factor’ of the game cannot be discounted, it states. 

As Special Forces 2 retails for $10, it concludes, the game also serves to ‘fund terrorist operations.’

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Life like video games?

Video games may be considered adolescent, but imagine if our lives were like video games where you constantly get rewarded for small accomplishments? Great, no?

ALWAYS looking to validate my gaming addiction, I checked out TED talks – everyone’s go-to source for out-of-the-box, forward-thinking smart talk to drop at dinner parties – to see if I could find any ammunition.

As usual TED talks didn’t disappoint.

A speaker named Jane McGonigal, an American game designer (and a woman as well, meaning she gets her choice of gaming geeks), not only argues that video games are good, but goes as far as to advocate spending more hours playing video games because that will make the world a better place.

That’s definitely an argument that I can get behind.

McGonigal argues that games like World Of Warcraft encourage users to tackle seemingly insurmountable tasks, and not only do players accept these epic mission but they work hard to achieve it. She then hits us with the crazy-sounding stat that collectively we have (some of us more than others) spent 5.93 million years playing World Of Warcraft.

World_of_warcraft_89Did you know that homo sapiens have spent a total of 5.93 million years alone playing World of Warcraft? Makes you wonder what Darwin would have thought of this feat

McGonigal then puts that in perspective by saying 5.93 million years ago, humans stood on two legs for the first time.

Playing video games for the same amount of time that it takes a species of primate to go from dwelling in trees and dining on insects to building metal mega-cities and flirting with space travel really does put things into perspective. Yeah, suddenly that seems like a heck of a lot of wasted time on gaming.

But McGonigal is undaunted, saying the amount of time a person spends on video games by the time they are 20 years old is 10,000 hours, the same amount of time that that person will have spent in school – and also, incidentally, the same amount of time author Malcolm Gladwell cites as necessary for someone to become really good at something. To quote rapper Macklemore, who was basically quoting Gladwell, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint; the greats were great because they painted a lot.”

Well, McGonigal is saying we’re playing a lot of games, but what is it exactly that we’re getting good at?

She’s not quite sure but she knows gamers are Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals. Yeah, SEHI is the acronym for that. That doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

She then goes on to conclude, somewhat uninspiringly, that if we could only create educational games we could start to harness some of the millions of years we’ve wasted on games.

Yeah. Except McGonigal forgot that educational games are pretty much terrible across the board.

It may seem like I’m denigrating McGonigal’s talk but what I really found interesting was the idea that we are in a period of mass exodus into gaming. There are 500 million gamers in the world, and this number is only growing.

McGonigal talks a bit on why games are so inviting, basically saying that it’s because reality sucks. She’s right.

In games, at any moment you could gain any number of seemingly random achievements.

Your characters can gain in skills any time. Maybe you’re attacking zombies, and suddenly get a +1 strength. Jumping over barrels, +1 agility. Read a science book, +1 science. Basically video games give us a ton of positive feedback. What if life was like that, McGonigal quips. The crowd laughs.

But seriously, what if life was like that?

What if when I submitted this article, I received the 60th Article Submitted but only 4th prior to the Official Deadline Achievement? What if we could get the Constant Bus Rider achievement for taking the bus for the 100th time? What if at work we didn’t get rewarded for huge seemingly unachievable goals but for small daily completed tasks?

Wouldn’t it feel great to field a call from an irate customer, hang up, and get the 50th Complainer Customer Achievement? At least it’d put a positive spin on an experience that is otherwise fairly unpleasant.

With smartphones and their ability to track our movements and activities, it’s not very far-fetched to think that this sort of reward system could become possible sometime in the near future, while employers would probably be able to implement some sort of reward system right now. Not that I want this kind of reward system to be used by corporations to manipulate people into work, but it’s sort of inevitable, isn’t it?

It works so well in video games to hook people.

The entire idea of “gamifying” life may sound nuts but if we’ve spent 5.93 million years playing video games, games are doing something right. Maybe it’s time for life to imitate art.

And if this idea sounds like something that would come from a Super Empowered Hopeful Individual, then maybe McGonigal is on to something.

Big Smile No Teeth

> Jason Godfrey can be seen hosting The Link on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728). Write to him at

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A father’s lament: The real world is not a game!

Learning should be fun, but that doesn’t mean we should be trying to hook kids into playing computer games that just happen to teach.

There was something about the Mama Bear family tech conference a week ago that creeped me out. I am the father of a 5-year-old boy, and perhaps a third of the people at this conference were trying to build apps for him. All the apps were well-intentioned. All were, at some level, educational.

Still, all the apps felt wrong to me. I wanted my son to have nothing to do with any of them.

I’ve been trying to understand why these educational apps were getting under my skin to this extent. It’s not like I’m anti-technology when it comes to my child. He plays Angry Birds. We watch TV (together). He’s a child of technology; how could he live in my house and not be?

A psychiatrist friend, listening to me rant about how these apps are trying to wilt my son’s brain, sympathized, but not completely. Yes, he said, computer games can be addictive. In fact, in his opinion, teaching kids to expect the world to work like a computer game deprives them of learning real-world life skills.

But, he said, a truly good educational app can be effective like a book, or a teacher. You can’t stick everything that pops up on a kid’s iPad into the “evil” category.

So where are the really good apps?

The Vinci Tab II is an Android tablet preloaded with educational software for kids up to 5 years old.

(Credit: Rafe Needleman/CNET)

A few days ago, I handed my son a Vinci tablet to try out. This is another well-intentioned product for young children. It comes with pre-installed educational games carefully geared to kids up to about my son’s age (actually he’s a little old for it, but I occasionally make him earn his keep as a product reviewer).

I had the same feeling of foreboding about this product as I did about many children’s apps I see. The Vinci reinforced this, unfortunately. While the game did in fact have educational payloads, the mechanics were, for the most part, dumb. How does pressing a button at exactly the right time to jump over a beach ball on-screen teach anything but how to operate a game, no matter what the game says it’s supposed to be about?

The boy liked the tablet and its apps. But it’s how he liked them that bothered me. The software sucked him in, and whatever lessons it tried to teach him were obstacles that seemed about as interesting as the flatly drawn beach balls. The real red flag came when I told my boy it was time to put the tablet down. He was so dialed in to the game mechanics that he panicked. He wasn’t in learning mode, he was in addiction mode.

Did he retain the factoids and basic math and spelling skills he learned while playing? I think so. But I don’t want him learning this way.

There is hope, though.

On the DIY app, kids snap pictures of their projects. On the Web site, shown, family and friends can award badges.

(Credit: Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

Yesterday, I read about the launch of DIY, a site and app for kids that’s supposed to be a social destination for them to share their creative projects. They upload photos of stuff they’ve designed, built, written, or drawn, and then their friends and family members can award them badges.

Something about this site appealed to me as a father. Why was it better than all the learning games, with their impressive educational pedigrees? I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I called up DIY’s CEO, Zach Klein (formerly of Vimeo). Klein isn’t a father himself, but he understands the child’s mind. In a few words he crystalized for me what I find distasteful about most kids’ programming.

“They are gravity-fed,” he says. “There’s a path of least resistance to get to the next screen.” The player’s job is to find that path, he says. Games like this “infantilize children.”

The real world doesn’t work like this. There are no shortcuts in life. You don’t get a big reward for each tiny action. Real rewards take real work.

DIY, he says, “gives children more responsibility than they are used to, not less.” And the rewards aren’t programmed. They come from peers and family. “We want kids to feel satisfaction, but we’re suggesting it will take time and craft and love to earn it.”

DIY is in a very early stage, and is too basic at the moment. In the interest of protecting kids, there’s no personal information anywhere on the system; kids’ identities are masked behind handles, and if a family member awards a kid a sticker, the kid can’t see who it came from. But the thinking of DIY is right, at least to me: Encourage kids to engage with the real world. Use social-networking mechanics to reinforce it.

I loaded the DIY app on to my old iPhone 3G. I plan to let my boy use the app on this device without supervision. It’s the first app I’ve seen that passes that test for me. I’m not sure he’ll use it, but I bet he will. And I like it, because it’s an accessory to his physical world, not a replacement for it.

by by  Rafe Needleman

Rafe reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business. Feeling lucky? Send pitches to And watch Rafe’s tech issues podcast, Reporters’ Roundtable.

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Cyber addicts, angry mum sets up ‘rehab’ centre for you!

KUALA LUMPUR: She was furious to find her son at a cybercafe, engrossed in his game, when he was supposed to be at rugby practice in school.

But what shocked Zaridah Abu Zarin, 39, even more was seeing children, some as young as four, completely absorbed in playing online games.

 Sunday matinee: Zaridah (left) and Wong (right) watching a movie with youths at their centre in Bandar Sri Damansara Sunday.

Moved by what she saw, Zaridah decided to set up a centre with her business partner, Michelle Wong, to help youths and children overcome their addiction to Internet games for free.

“There were also four children, squeezing in one seat, just so that they could share the computer in the cybercafe,” said the KidQ daycare centre director at Bandar Sri Damansara here.

Wong, who is also a director at KidQ, said the centre, named “U”th Community Centre, that started yesterday, would be a place for children to participate in enjoyable and productive activities.

“There’s more  meaning to life than going to the cybercafe. One of our immediate steps is to conduct an intervention for children addicted to the Internet at cybercafes.

“Since we run a daycare centre, we have the facilities to allow youths and children to conduct activities,” said the 47-year-old.

Wong said she and Zaridah would ask the children about their interests and match them with suitable activities.

“With our background in childcare,k we can also find professionals to coach them and help them with job placements in future,” she said.

Zaridah said if things went well, they would like to expand the centre to reach out to children in different areas.


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