U.S. spies spent years infiltrating virtual gaming worlds like Worlds of Warcraft, “hunting” for terrorists and vacuuming up oodles of data, according to a report Monday by ProPublica, the N.Y. Times, and The Guardian. In fact, there were so make virtual reality spies bumbling around places like Second Life that a new “deconfliction” group had to be formed so they wouldn’t bump into each other and waste their time.
Well, from all accounts, they were wasting time playing video games anyway. This story has everything you might expect: Government contractors selling snake oil, Junior G-Men creating a vast conspiracy of busywork, and of course, programmers tricking their bosses into letting them play video games at work.
The stories cite original documents from both British and American agencies with goofy names like “Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments” as the basis for the report. One document indicates that in a three-day binge, British spies slurped up 176,677 lines of data from Second Life, including chats, instant messages, and financial data. I suppose it was someone’s hell to read through Second Life chats from 9-5, Monday through Friday. Where’s the excellent data on how many times “flying penis” was mentioned?
As Peter Singer says in the ProPublica piece, online games actually do a relatively good job of keeping track of members — better than say, the whole rest of the Internet, anyway. There’s a money trail, for example. Any terrorist who was skilled enough to get a fake ID would find another place to plan a conspiracy against America. Like a chat room. For more details on the gamer folly, read the piece.
Opportunity cost is the vastly misunderstood element of security efforts. When you are strip-searching grandma, you aren’t interviewing a young single man traveling on a one-way ticket with no luggage. There are only so many dollars, eyeballs, and even processing cycles that can be put into hunting terrorists. Smart choices involve trade-offs. Whatever teams were devoted to playing video games on our tax dollars were not engaged in more, ahem, practical counter-terrorism efforts.
This has to be part of the conversation going forward. No matter what you feel about Edward Snowden’s disclosures, you must see that agencies with no oversight are capable of both great abuse and great waste. We can’t afford either.