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The blood elf flies north at midnight

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So now we know that the NSA isn’t just mining mobile phone metadata. They’re mining World of Warcraft gold.

I suspect their people are a lot less clueless than my cartoonist’s heart would like to believe. Sure, I’m tickled at the thought of James Bond flailing helplessly in mid-air for hours in Second Life. But even as someone whose knowledge of the intelligence community is largely informed by Michael Westen‘s monologues (see previous cartoon), I’m pretty sure these folks are used to adapting quickly to different cultures and unfamiliar environments.

And intelligence work in a MMORPG probably isn’t much different from intelligence work anywhere else: building relationships, gaining trust, listening carefully, and doing a lot more boring sifting through data than you might think. (So online community managers, you can probably expect a call from a CIA human resources officer any day now.)

That doesn’t mean the execution went off without a hitch. According to the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, there were so many intelligence agents in the virtual field that a “deconfliction” group had to keep them from wasting time infiltrating each other. Not that there aren’t folks who use Second Life as a way of infiltrating each other, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic. And the ProPublica article on the Snowden revelations suggests strongly that terrorists weren’t actually using World of Warcraft or Second Life except for recreation and getting one’s freak on.

What the article doesn’t address, and what I suspect the biggest danger posed by MMORPG ops, is mission creep.

Anyone who has missed work to finish a quest, or looked up from an online melee to realize it’s four in the morning, knows what I’m talking about. Intelligence agencies used to have to worry about field agents “going native”; now they have to worry their loyalty could be divided between their country and their guild. Yeah, you’re pretty sure that mage is MOSSAD, but she’s awfully handy with a Frost spell, so now she’s in your questing party. And maybe you haven’t come up with a lick of actionable intel in three years, but you’ve kept Al Qaeda off the leaderboard, and isn’t that what really matters?

Incidentally, there’s also the massive violation of privacy (and community). Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone trying to do something about that?

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