The NSA’s virtual spies in 'World of Warcraft' -- on a fool’s mission?

Is this a 12-year-old boy playing "World of Warcraft," or is it a terrorist?

The U.S. National Security Agency has been sending virtual spies into World of Warcraft and other virtual worlds.

And the gaming worlds do have clandestine operations -- but they’re for doing business, not doing damage. On “gold farms,” low-paid workers in countries like China produce virtual goods to sell for real money to wealthier gamers. The gaming companies already have their own virtual security operations to root them out.

Brian Keegan is a computational scientist at Harvard. He looked at an NSA-style dump of five years worth of user behavior on the game "Everquest" -- and he used it to study gold farming, as an example of how clandestine networks operate.

He says you’d have to be a pretty dumb terrorist to think that "World of Warcraft" was a good place to hold a cell meeting, when the companies are listening to everything.

“There’s certainly smarter ways to talk about things you don’t want to be heard than logging into a virtual world of orcs and elves,” he says, “where you’ve got 10 million of your closest friends who are also listening in.”

At the same time, deploying individual virtual spies would be labor-intensive. "World of Warcraft" alone has 120 different servers -- each of them a parallel world.

“It doesn’t seem clear that you could go undercover at the scale that would be necessary to monitor these game worlds,” says Keegan.

Vili Lehdronvirta, who studies virtual economies at Oxford, co-wrote a 2011 report for the World Bank, in which he called gold farming a $3 billion industry.

He mused over a scenario where an NSA worker’s boss caught him playing "World of Warcraft" on company time.

“I’m almost tempted to think that a supervisor caught an agent playing World of Warcraft on their work-time,” he says. “So they came up with this ruse that, ‘Oh, I am chasing terrorists in the game.’ And that joke sort of got out of hand, and now they’ve got a whole project devoted to that.”

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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