That night elf you defeated in World of Warcraft may have been an NSA spy. Really

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Enough with all the data mining. That's what Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and several other US companies seem to say today. The tech giants wrote an open letter to the White House and Congress asking them to curb the NSA surveillance of their user's information. A few more tech companies might want to add their names to that letter, like the developers of the video games World of Warcraft and Second Life. Today's New York Times reports that US and British spies actually infiltrated those games in search of terrorist activity. That's info based on, you guessed it, more leaked surveillance documents. Mark Mazzetti, co-author of The Times' story:

Mark Mazzetti: The concern back in 2007-2008 was that these worlds were kind of unregulated and could be used as safe-havens for groups who might want to plan attacks. So in other words, if you're in World of Warcraft and you're a terrorist, you would be, in theory, talking about some kind of fantasy thing with another terrorist, but you would then be using that as code to plot an actual attack.

Werman: Right. So they might be saying to one another, "Don't hide behind the big rock" and that might be code for something.

Mazzetti: Yes, exactly. Not only communication, but also these virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft have their own currencies and the worry was that these currencies could be used to somehow move money in way that was outside of the view of normal financial regulations.

Werman: I mean, it sounds plausible and kind of theoretical. What did they actually find?

Mazzetti: Well, it's hard from the documents to see any kind of actual evidence that terrorists had, in fact, infiltrated these worlds. We talked to current and former officials. We also talked to outside experts, and some people pointed out that if you are a terrorist, this is not the safest place for you to be operating in, because these worlds - If you just take World of Warcraft for instance, there is a decent amount of regulation of these games, just by the companies themselves. The companies monitor traffic. The companies monitor financial activity. So if you're going to want to hide somewhere in some corner of the Internet, this is not necessarily the safest place to do it.

Werman: What's really absurd, and you describe this in your New York Times story, is that there were so many agents from so many agencies playing around and snooping on these games that they actually had to develop another system to identify each other because they were virtually bumping into each other in these games. Did anyone give you examples of these awkward moments?

Mazzetti: No, but there's mention on a document about the need for a de-confliction group, which means that some group that would cut across all these various agencies that would allow them to know which digital avatar was actually a CIA officer, which gnome might be a FBI agent, and so that was just sort of the sign about how much all these different agencies saw these virtual worlds as quote, "an opportunity".

Werman: Have any suspects been apprehended, or even zeroed in on based on intelligence gathered from these gaming sites?

Mazzetti: There is mention in one of these documents about, in Britain, there was a criminal network that had moved its operations into Second Life and that the London police had used a digital informant inside Second Life which helped them sort of gather information about this criminal network. Not much more we know about that operation, and beyond that, it's hard to know about any real specific operations that have been launched or thwarted in these virtual worlds.

Werman: Now you told the story, Mark, of the former Chief Operation Officer at Second Life in San Francisco, a guy named Cory Ondrejka, who's now at Facebook. He was, in fact, a former Navy officer who had worked in the NSA, he had top secret security clearance. Is that typical, this revolving door between intelligence and the online gaming world?

Mazzetti: It's hard to know how typical it is. I mean, certainly if you're a gaming company or if you're a tech company and you're the NSA, you're going to try, to some degree, recruit from the same pool. People who have technical skills, math skills, programming skills. Now that the tech companies are under a certain degree of heat for what they are or are not doing with intelligence agencies, my guess is that there might be some greater scrutiny of who joins the tech companies.

Werman: It does kind of feel like grasping for straws with the NSA snooping in the gaming world, but there is a link that is not totally fantasy. Apparently Hezbollah created a video game?

Mazzetti: Outside of the pure surveillance aspect of this, video games have been used for, essentially, propaganda purposes. Hezbollah has had games that they try to market to young people in the Middle East that advance their own propaganda agendas. In the latter part of the last decade, the Pentagon actually developed online games for propaganda and intelligence gathering purposes that were designed by European tech companies. But the purpose was to get people to play them without identifying them as American government products. In other words, get your messages to the gamers subtly without saying these are made by the USA.

Werman: So what questions are you left with, and is this still going on?

Mazzetti: My sense is that this is probably still going on. The NSA and American and British Intelligence Agencies told us very little when we put questions to them about it. I still have questions about exactly what they have found out in these worlds. After all of this enthusiasm in 2007-2008, whether the terrorists were there or not.

Werman: Mark Mizetti, a journalist with the New York Times. He's also the author of The Way Of The Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army and A War At The Ends Of The Earth. Mark, for this discussion, it's game over. Thanks for your time.

Mazzetti: Thanks so much.

Werman: Let's stick with video games for our next story. It's part of a collaboration we have with Radio Ambulante. Ambulante's founder is the novelist, Daniel Alarcon, so I'll let him introduce the story.

Daniel Alarcon: This is a story about games, specifically something that interests me quite a bit as a story teller, as a novelist. This new kind of interactive game that functions almost like a novel. I sort of compare them to those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories that I used to read when I was a kid, that I loved a lot. And I just think that there's an entire type of gaming now that is borrowing quite a bit from more sophisticated story-telling that is not just shoot-em-up kind of stuff. And in the case of this game, Papo y Yo, we have a game designer who tried to create a really complex and sophisticated story about alcoholism and poverty in Latin America.