The Time when the NSA Sent Spies into the World of Warcraft


The year is 2006. The world of warcraft is peaceful. The birds are chirping, the swamp jaguars are being hunted into extinction, the npcs are asking too much from strangers. But something is afoot. Or at least the government suspects it is.

The world of warcraft might be full of terrorists. Yes, the US government was afraid terrorists were using the World of Warcraft to plan real world terrorist attacks.

But let’s dive into some context first: 2006 was the height of the war on terrosim, and it’s also the year that marks a shift in how terrorists operated. Terrorism had become global. Terrorist groups were recruiting globally, their attacks were aimed at creating fear across international borders. Since the 9-11 attacks, the scope and reach of terrorism had only grown larger.

And as terrorism globalized, the approach that spy agencies took had also shifted. The NSA’s budget grew every year, and with it, their efforts to intercept terrorist communications.

It all started when they found evidence that known terrorists had been signing into the world of warcraft and second life. It was probably flimsy evidence based on IP addresses, but isn’t that enough to start a multibillion dollar surveillance program?

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to devise how they might be secretly communicating in these games: they could use in-game lingo as a code to avoid detection. A bombing could be referred to as a fireball spell, and no one unaware of their code would know otherwise. Nevermind that two-way encrypted messaging exists, was widely available at that time, and would be far better than using veiled language in a heavily monitored game.

They were also afraid they were using these games to launder money. And what better place to launder money than in a totally stable and reliable video game economy, using the totally stable in-game currency?

But despite the loose logic, the NSA mobilized. They sent agents into these games, looking for terrorist activity.

And just to be clear, I’m not the only one who thinks this is silly. Timothy Stevens, a cybersecurity researcher, called the whole thing “as absurd as it was unsubstantiated.” But then again, if they were using video games to plan their attacks, the absurdity would be the whole point, wouldn’t it? It’s not clear exactly what they were gleaming from spying in that game. When Blizzard was asked for commentary on the subject, they said they had no idea there was any surveillance going on in their games at all.

At one time, they had so many agents playing World of Warcraft, agents spying on other agents became an issue. So they had to create a “deconfliction” group, to make sure their agents don’t spy on each other. But let’s take a step back: if you had the choice to play a video game or comb through endless logs of phone call data, which one would you pick? It’s not surprising the game’s spy unit got so big.

But ultimately, this program never found anything. Who could have guessed it. Probably because the terrorists weren’t middle school boys, and had enough technological savy to realize it’s not just a bad idea, it’s a dumb idea too.

Long before anyone learned about the NSA’s efforts to spy on the Wrold of Warcraft, terrorism had become a hot topic in the game Second Life. The Austrialian, an Australian newspaper, reported a devastating attack: The bomb hit the [Austrialian broadcast company’s] headquarters, destroying everything except one digital transmission tower. The force of the blast left [the] site a cratered mess.

This attack was reported to have happened within the game second life by a reputable newspaper. Of course, those buildings dissappeared due to a server error, but once the idea spread that it was due to terrorism, it seemed to rewrite history. And people didn’t know how to take it. People started buying more guns in game, and the game’s arms market went haywire. In the same news story, the author claimed jhihadist groups had public groups in the game, and were using the game for recruitment. If the perpetrators of 9/11 used flight simulators to practice the attack, why not use Second life to practice other sorts of attacks?

While it did create a panic, at the end of the day, it was the completely unhinged reporting of a single newspaper that created a brief social phenomenon.

Oh, and the NSA actually had sent spies into Second Life as well, probably as a result of the terrorism scare. They didn’t find anything in Second Life either.

But that doesn’t mean terrorists have never used online games. While it seems unlikely an online game has ever been used to plan a terrorist attack, one of the NSA’s fears have come true. These games have excelled at one thing in particular: recruitment. In the online game Roblox, domestic terrorists have flocked to the platform. If you search the platform, you can find white supremacist and neonazi groups, creating propaganda games to recruit children to their ideologies. It’s unnerving how many swastikas and you can find, or nazi phrases. And children don’t have the analytical tools to understand how these groups are lying to them yet. But somehow, these groups keep evading Roblox’s moderation.

But video games being used for recruitment is no new idea. The US military has been doing that for years and years now. The first game they produced was called America’s Army. And it used similar recruitment tactics, years before there was a scare that terrorists were using video games for recruitment. Maybe the US government gave them the idea for it.

But ultimately, what was once a strange little blip in the NSA’s history became a real concern. The world has shifted, and while the middle eastern terrorists may have never used online games for anything nefarious, our homegrown terrorists seem to love it.

Thanks for watching.

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