Absurdity in Logic: NSA Taps Online Gaming Networks
A few days ago The Guardian
, New York Times
, and Pro Publica
published another round of documents
leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; much to the surprise of online gamers the 82 pages of documentation detailed the National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters intent to monitor and surveil popular online networks and video games for potential terrorist activities.
Despite how alarming the document may be to online gamers the world over, one fact stands clear among irreverent assumptions that lace the logic of the documents in question; the anonymity of the internet for end-users is a faux reality. Though gamers can still rest assured that most other end-users cannot pierce the veil of anonymity the internet provides, those that partake in gaming over cyber space are playing with a virtual electric eye that has penetrated this once sacred veil for internet users.
Among the revelations published by the above mentioned media sources, the networks and games which have been surveilled are limited to three of the most popular and social virtual environments; Blizzard’s World of Warcraft
, Xbox Live, and Second Life
. With dozens of millions of users playing and socializing within these virtual realms, some terrorists must be utilizing them for their own devious devices, right? At a glance it sounds legitimate, but if only it were true the intelligence community of the Western world would not have made fools of themselves again in the post-Soviet era and by proxy the citizens and gamers which call this part of the world home.
Logic Behind the Surveillance
The logic behind the surveillance of online gaming networks by the NSA and GCHQ casts two shadows; one which suggests malicious organizations and individuals are more cunning than previously expected by expanding their digital communications via gaming networks, or that the paranoia attributed to terrorist activities and successes since the beginning of the millennium continually permeates throughout the fabric of Western society and it’s intelligence services.
Entitled, “Games: A Look at Emerging Trends, Uses, Threats and Opportunities in Influence Activities,” the 2008 NSA document relies on a few logically plausible though wholesomely assumptive uses for online gaming networks by terrorists in general with a large wagging finger swaying in front of Al Qaeda. Among the documented presumptions these games and networks “could” be used by terrorists for are; communications, the funneling and laundering of financial assets, recruiting, and propaganda.
The other document, entitled, "Get in the Game with Target Development for World of Warcraft Gaming," closely considers WoW
as a subject video game for monitoring and surveilling online video games for intelligence purposes while loosely stating that other games can be used to provide weapons training and infantry tactics training supported by the fact that the notorious 9-11 Hijackers trained themselves to fly commercial aircraft via Microsoft's Flight Simulator
However, as the titles stipulate, exploiting these uses is at the heart of the story, leading to the monitoring of WoW
, and Second Life
. This is where the veil of anonymity becomes transparent and violations of privacy by governmental organizations of the United States and the United Kingdom level up, as it were. From computer network exploitation, to social network analysis, identification tracking, geo-locating, and communications monitoring; these suggested methods of data collection all seek to single out intelligence suspects hiding in plain sight within cyber space.
The reason behind it all is these online gaming networks provide a, “target-rich communications network.” Which logically is true, but without proof that malicious organizations are utilizing online games and associated networks for these activities is akin to calling the ocean a target-rich environment for fishing after growing up in a land-locked country.
Failures in Logical Assumption
The problem with the document is that their logical assertions though plausible are void without evidence showing that these networks and games are being used by terrorist groups, which the document is void of. The only success reported in the leaked document and other related memos was a criminal group that shared stolen credit card data; but no terrorist activity. Though the "Get in the Game" document states "Al Qaida terrorist selectors" have been associated to World of Warcraft
, Xbox Live
, and Second Life
, there is no further presentation of supporting information that directly links suspect terrorists to these games. Only metadata databases are mentioned without providing hard evidence that the data monitored was not associated with a publicly used IP address; all the data that is alluded to simply came from the ether of monitored network traffic.
Instead the only solid supporting data provided in the documents states very obvious facts about online gaming demographics, the financial strength of the video game industry, and internet infrastructural development. The Americas and Asia have the largest online gaming footprint; the rest of the world is catching up. The video games industry is outpacing every other entertainment industry. Developing regions of the world have a greater rate of infrastructural growth than the developed world. Go figure and what a surprise. No wonder why they targeted games and networks developed, hosted, and used by North American and Asian gamers; the technological requirements are there along with the audience.
Given the reality of where terrorist organizations both live and operate today and dating back to this document’s penning in 2008, not only are their target-rich networks off base, they are not even close to targeting their intended terrorist suspects. Logically if those you seek to monitor live and operate in Africa and the Middle East, you’d target those very same regions of the world; not your own backyard.
Absurdity At Large
What is most bothersome about the leaked white papers and the surveillance efforts which they led to is how absurd of a notion the idea was at-large. Section by section and paragraph to paragraph, the NSA documents are loaded with assumptions of absurdity veiled by a necessity for intelligence services in the Western world to develop contingencies for perceived threats and potential realities. These assumptions of safety aside, the execution has been so poor legal arguments against the logic behind these surveillance methods and target environments are more real and apparent. Embroidered by broad and vague statements, the documents are simply thought-experiments into how online gaming networks can be used by nefarious terrorists the world over, rather than actually identifying how terrorist groups communicate, provide financial support for their efforts, and plan their attacks. Instead the intelligence apparatus of the NSA and GCHQ have found it more fit to monitor the verbose amounts of data from World of Warcraft
, Xbox Live
, and Second Life
populated by millions of gamers in North America, Japan, South Korea, and China. When the terrorist groups the intelligence community of the Western world targets exist outside of these regions, in the Middle East (as a given the Saudi peninsula, Iraq, and remote areas of Pakistan) and of late throughout numerous destabilized countries in Africa such as; Libya, Mali, Nairobi, Niger, Algeria, and Somalia. Despite the fact that Africa has recently increased development of internet infrastructure, the nations this development has occurred in are in the southern half of the continent whereas terrorist activities have increased in northern nations, many of which lack the resources and organization to further develop their own internet capabilities.
Though other revelations from Snowden showed cooperation between technology companies in regards to other areas of digital surveillance, these latest documents detail surveillance operations below the belt of at least one of the companies involved. Despite Microsoft and Linden Lab declining to comment on the monitoring of network traffic from Xbox Live
, and Second Life
; the New York Times and Pro Publica quoted a Blizzard spokesperson stating that the Irvine, California based company was unaware of any surveillance operations being conducted.
"If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission," said the Blizzard spokesperson.
Rife with baseless assumptions while transposing cultural gaming aspects of North America and Asia onto the shoulders of terrorists, what these latest leaks by Snowden best reflect is not an endangerment to these virtual realms which many gamers inhabit, but the foolishness and paranoia that has seeded and blossomed within the intellgience community of the Western world.