NSA surveillance includes online games

It turns out that British and American spies have been spending time playing popular online games as part of their professional activities. A new report by the Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica shows that the 

National Security Agency (NSA) spied on users of online games, specifically the popular role-playing game World of Warcraft and virtual world Second Life.

Newly-released documents originally obtained by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was concerned that people could use these games  to communicate surreptitiously:

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. Online gaming represents a technology that is rapidly growing in popularity worldwide.

The documents went on to describe the fear that "targets" could "hide in plain sight" and use the game's mechanisms, including voice and text chatting, commerce in imaginary currency, and fake identities. The NSA used software to isolate and track communications between players.

In addition, the NSA had agents create their own characters to try and recruit informers from what was 10 million World of Warcraft players (now down to 7.7 million) and an unspecified number of Second Life users (currently 1 million monthly according to the company). The number of World of Warcraft players mentioned in the document suggest that it could have been created as early as 2008 or as late as 2012.

Surveillance targets included Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox Live, a gaming and communication network. The documents did not specify how the NSA gained access to user data or how many players had been monitored. A spokesperson for Blizzard Entertainment (ATVI), which makes and runs World of Warcraft, said that the company was unaware of any surveillance and that it had been done without the company's "knowledge or permission."

Eight leading technology companies yesterday published an open letter through newspaper ads calling for the government to reform its surveillance practices. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual -- rights that are enshrined in our Constitution," stated the letter, which was backed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo.

In addition to spying on gamers, an activity that the documents had not mentioned as successful, the NSA was also worried about how terrorist groups could use games to recruit and train personnel and to promote religious ideology.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.