Opinion: Spying on game players? Really?

December 11, 2013


Sometimes I find myself wondering whether the American intelligence community secretly takes its inspiration, if not its directions, from old episodes of the classic British comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Just as we are being told by senior intelligence officials that the global terrorist threat is growing at a dangerous rate, we discover from another release of leaked information, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that American and British spy agencies including the CIA, NSA and GCHQ have employed large numbers of their employees to play online games like World of Warcraft in order to monitor whether terrorists are using these games to communicate among themselves.

If one can overcome the sense of absurdity that attaches to the notion of CIA agents assuming online gaming roles to seek out terrorist plots, there is, I have to admit, some rational basis for what our intelligence community has been doing. On the other hand, I suppose that one does have to ask whether having the government spying on citizens, many of who play these online games in order to escape from the dreary realities of the 21st century, on the off chance that they might find an al-Qaida operative who has assumed the role of some fantasy warrior in order to coordinate a terrorist plot hidden in a game, is really worth it.

It is becoming increasingly clear that as Americans become more and more dependent on the Internet and other digital media for their work, play and communications, the government has decided to monitor everything it can possibly find, even those places online that are supposed to allow us to indulge our fantasies.

In actual fact, I find this kind of intrusive spying not only not funny, but downright frightening. One wonders, for instance, whether the NSA has decided to keep a record of those online gamers who are particularly adept at killing their opponents? Is their somebody sitting somewhere in a closed room in some sub-basement of an NSA building who has decided that if you are an efficient killing machine in an online game, then you might also be a security risk in real life? As absurd as it sounds, you do have to wonder.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. government’s ire at Snowden is not simply about national security. It is about the fact that Snowden’s leaks are making it very clear how out of control the American intelligence community is. It is not surprising that many of the major technology companies, like Microsoft, Google and Facebook, among others, are now calling for Congress to regulate and limit intelligence agencies’ spying on Americans. These companies realize that ordinary Americans want their privacy and that if the government is going to spy on everything we do, then we will go “off the grid” as much as possible to avoid such blatantly intrusive government actions. As far as I’m concerned, it’s time to unplug the Xbox.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Mark Rainey 4 years, 4 months ago

I think the point was the in-game chat of online games was being used as a secure communication channel, not trolling for skilled gamers.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 4 months ago

On the other hand had the Bush admin been doing it's job and intercepted the 9/11/01 game plan the USA would not be using fear to keep the nation at war.

The 9/11/01 players were known to the intelligence community long before 9/11/01 yet were able to take control of 4 jumbo passenger jets simultaneously. The white house was advised a plan was underway. Yet failed to authorize a detail to intervene.

The NSA knew of the 9/11/01 culprits who so the story goes were living in Maryland for about two years. NSA headquarters is in Maryland. I would suggest that NSA competence is in question.

Joshua Cain 4 years, 3 months ago

It all goes away with a change in foreign policy. Won't cost a dime...in fact it will probably save money.

Great article Mike.

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