After reading almost a year’s worth of wild tales of NSA derring-do, there isn’t much that should surprise us…Until I read yesterday’s story that the NSA contracted with security contractors to infiltrate the online gaming world. Their mission was to lure potential terrorists into its net. The goals of the project (full report here in pdf form) seem terribly hazy, and this introduction from SAIC’s report to the NSA exposes the shaky assumptions that underpinned it:
Although online gaming may seem like an innocuous form of entertainment, when the basic features and capabilities are examined, it could potentially become a target-rich communication network…
WoW may be providing SIGINT targets a way to hide in plain sight.
…It is highly likely they will be making wide use of the many communications features offered by Games and Virtual Environments (GVE) by 2010
I could be the King of Siam and it’s highly likely I’ll be winning the lottery.
Essentially, what it comes down to is that the geeks at NSA thought the virtual gaming world was cool and believed that their terrorist nemeses would be thinking along the same lines. They believed that terrorists should like playing war games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. “Should” was transformed into a firm conviction with little evidence to support it.
Once they’d convinced themselves terrorists were haunting the virtual world they assured themselves the bad guys might be identified and tracked through their online activity or that they could be recruited as agents once identified.
The documents reveal that at no time did any NSA operative or contractor expose a planned terrorist act through spying on the virtual world gaming community. Though they did identify potential targets for recruitment who played such games, there’s no indication that they succeeded in recruiting anyone or learning anything of any significance. In other words, this entire project was a big flap-doodle.
But the executives of at least one of the gaming companies actively encouraged the participation of the NSA in their community. One who was a former Navy intelligence officer even went so far as to join agents in a brown bag lunch at which they could brainstorm ways in which the two entities could collaborate.
The truly zany aspect of this is that SAIC, a security company awarded a “lucrative” contract to create games of their own and monitor existing online realms, devised, for some odd reason, “fictional scenarios.” It’s not clear to me what the purpose of these vignettes were. Were they suggesting the NSA could create its own games (there’s indication they did this in at least one instance)? Or were they engaging in some free-form virtual daydreaming projecting how terrorists might think?
At least one of these fictional games simulates Palestinian suicide attacks. After reading the swill they contrived, it’s not clear that any self-respecting Palestinian militant would’ve fallen for this garbage. But it is interesting to read how American intelligence analysts see Palestinian militants.
One scenario SAIC developed has members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade recruiting future suicide bombers via the online game world. The methods the fictional militants use “embellish atrocities committed by the Israelis.” But why would they need to embellish? Is there not enough real innocent blood to use in creating such a game without “embellishing?”
Any real Islamist militant would be happy to play a game in which correct answers get him “one step closer to Paradise,” in the words of the simulation.
Another scenario posits that Israeli military engaging in wanton genocide:
Protect all Christians and kill Muslims, including women and children to prevent the creation of more Islamic people and to slowly claim land that is not theirs.
In yet another narrative, the young gamer watches his family killed by the IDF, after which he’s recruited to become a suicide bomber and has to make a fateful decision: if he refuses he will betray his people. But if he agrees he will become “a hero in his community:”
When you carry out your mission, you cause the death of the Israeli soldiers who killed your mother, sister and father. You are celebrated as a hero…
As with so much of the foolishness in which the NSA engages, it’s hard to make any rhyme or reason out of this. In other words, what were they thinking?
From your NYT link –
“But for all their enthusiasm — so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.”
Dutch ministers have been denying their role in cooperating with NSA spying …
Infiltration method Dutch intelligence (AIVD) in gaming Second Life presented to an intelligence congress in New York in 2008.
Fred Plester says
I think you’re attributing the media hype on this one to the NSA and GCHQ, when the reality was, as has actually been in the public domain for a few years now, that they thought that online games could allow terrorists and criminals to exchange information in an untraceable manner.
There was also the matter of crime involving the virtual currencies used in these virtual worlds, and there have actually been real-world prosecutions (and a conviction) for stealing virtual currency and selling it to other gamers for real money.
I am not sure that Al Qaeda is the likeliest group to take advantage of this, but perhaps the Animal Rights Militia didn’t make a dramatic enough headline.
There is real world crime being worked through online gaming, and it’s obvious that at some point someone has to go and look to see what’s going on.
It’s also the case that some college and school shooters have been very heavy online gamers, so I can see some scope for law enforcement interest from that angle too.
So I think the substance behind all this hype is that now and then someone goes online and has a look, or maybe even monitors the gaming activity of someone they suspect anyway, not just in case he’s communicating via the game, which is a serious possibility, but also because his conduct in the game may actually allow his state of mind to be assessed. (A bit numb and detached, for the average gamer.)
The rest is probably hype, bragging and third hand exaggeration.
Speaking of the NSA I am curious how richard communicates with his sources inside Israel. If not encrypted it would seem that every message would be widely known especially if his source is a government official. This would imply that these leaks are sanctioned. I am raising this question not because of any personal hostility — I like this blog and find the perspectives refreshing. I am curious about why so many others are so suspicious of this site.
Richard Silverstein says
Any decent reporter has a variety of sources, some official & sanctioned & others not. In addition official sources leak for a wide variety of reasons, some laudatory & some patently self-serving. It’s the job of a good reporter to examine not just the information, but the context & reasons it was offered to you. That’s why this can be a very delicate dance.
Though it’s easy to see why the right wing hates what I do & disparages it. It’s more interesting to examine the motives of liberal Zionists & the left who accuse me of being a dupe of the Mossad. It is they who are shallow and lacking in understanding of the value of what I do.
Robert Mullen says
“…project a big flap-doodle.” Colorful but maybe yes, maybe no. It is highly unlikely you or most people in NSA for that matter would be made aware of the successful recruitment of potential agents: especially without the help from the ilk of the thief and traitor Snowden.