It’s recently come out that the NSA was “surveilling” Xbox Live and World of Warcraft for terrorist activity. It is something being taken very, very seriously by the New York Times as yet another incursion into the private lives of everyday Americans. But nobody is talking about what’s glaringly obvious about this: That it was fairly blatantly an attempt to get paid to play video games.
Seriously, while this is certainly a privacy problem, in the sense that you shouldn’t have to wonder if your guild administrator is an NSA stooge, a far greater problem is that whoever came up with this knows his bosses a little too well. When you read the actual two page document, it quickly turns from tragedy to farce. Anybody who has ever written a memo with a hidden motive will pretty immediately twig to the ongoing subtext here, which is “If I B.S. this hard enough, I can totally grind levels at work!”
If you stop and think about it, the idea that you can find terrorists on World of Warcraft or Second Life is, well, dumb. First of all, games have a fairly high barrier to entry; you need a PC that can run the game, the game itself, a subscription, and a stable Internet connection. For most of the planet that kind of money is hard to come by. Secondly, it’s a little hard to sell yourself as committed to the cause when you’re trying to get that last bit of XP to go up a level while arguing about the motives of the Horde in chat. You may come across a teenager calling himself the real leader of Anonymous now and again, but the reality is, most people who are planning on actually committing acts of terrorism tend to be too busy and/or remote to game.
It’s unclear whether this NSA memo actually resulted in any real surveillance, or just government employees covering their screwing around by claiming success. Government operations like this are cloaked in secrecy in the first place, and if this was a scam, that increases motivation to make things as vague as possible. It seems likely that if this happened, it was brief.
And it’s true that even without undercover agents running around, gamers should be asking hard questions about their privacy. The simple reality is, the Xbox One comes with a camera that, at first, could never be shut off, and can still track who’s in the room and listen to your conversations if they so choose. Nobody pretends that the major console makers aren’t watching what you’re playing and how long you’re playing it. Every gaming company has some questions it needs to answer about privacy that many haven’t, yet.
But either way, this less illustrates the intrusiveness of the NSA and, more worryingly, the gullibility of those in charge. If actual money was spent determining whether or not your guild was a terrorist cell, we need to start asking just how competent the NSA actually is in the first place.