World of Spycraft in Virtual Space

The Guardian’s latest Snowden scoop describes how they decided to infiltrate World at Warcraft and other virtual gaming environments. As they point out, there’s no clear proof terrorists have used such space (though they were able to follow some credit card thieves into Second Life once). But what the heck? There’s metadata to be collected, so why not conquer it. As the original document describes,

GVEs are an opportunity! We can use games for: CNE exploits, social network analysis, HUMINT targeting, ID tracking (photos, doc IDs), shaping activities, geo-location of target, and collection of comms.

I’m particularly interested in the treatment of the propaganda and training value of virtual space. There, they focus on Hezbollah’s use of Special Force 2 to train potential recruits (and fundraise).

GVEs have been made that reinforce prejudices and cultural stereotypes while imparting a targeted message or lesson both from the Western point of view and in the Middle East. America’s Army is a U.S. Army produced game that is free download from its recruitment page and is acknowledged to be so good at this the army no longer needs to use it for recruitment, they use it for training. The Lebanese Hizballah has taken this concept and the same basic game design and made its own version of the game called Special Forces 2 (SF2), which its press section acknowledges is used for recruitment and training in order to prepare their youth to “fight the enemy”, a radicalizing medium; the ultimate goal is to become a suicide martyr. One cannot discount the “fun factor” involved—it is important to hold your target audience’s attention– and makes ingesting the message not even noticeable. SF2 features multi-player, online text and voice chat for up to 60 players simultaneously, effectively acting like a VPN or private chat forum. SF2 is offered at $10 a copy and so also goes to fund terrorist operations.

This was admission that we regard such games as legitimate war tools.

I immediately thought of Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the Iranian-American ex-Marine sentenced to death by the Iranians while visiting relatives in 2011 (that is, well after this NSA document was written in 2008; his death sentence has since been overturned). At the time, public reports described the detention as a big misunderstanding over the role of Hekmati’s role in an online game company, Kuma Wars.

A Pentagon language-training contract won in 2009 by Kuma Games, a New York-based company that develops reality-based war games — including one called “Assault on Iran” — lists as a main contact Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the former Marine from Flint, Mich., now on death row in an Iranian prison, convicted of spying for the C.I.A.

That $95,920 contract, and Mr. Hekmati’s military background, his Iranian heritage and some linguistics work he did for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, help explain why the authorities in Iran, increasingly paranoid and belligerent about perceived American threats, had him arrested last August while he was visiting Iran for the first time.


“They don’t want to say anything that might have negative repercussions,” said Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Mott Community College in Flint, where the father teaches. “Something that appears harmless here could be interpreted differently there.”

Sure enough, however, NSA treats Kuma Wars similar to the way it treated Hezbollah’s war game.

Kuma Wars is a U.S. owned company that offers realistic battle simulation of real battles in Iraq usually one month after they actually happened. The player can re-do maneuvers in a lessons learned way for training, or you can switch sides and see how it works from the opposite side. It also provides real terrain features, such as real road signs from real roads in Iraq, and a simulated night-vision goggles environment.

Meanwhile, the LAT reports the CIA’s NOC program has been a colossal flop.

If the US is going to treat all these platforms as the next battleground in the war against al Qaeda or Iran, we should expect Americans — innocent or not — to be treated as spies in that space.

17 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    the eagle chases its tail feathers.

    what won’t those violent, sneaky, obscenely clever, unstoppable, hyper-religious muslims our news media refer to as “terrorists” do in their efforts to destroy our poor little ol’ country?

    now, the nSECURITYa tells us (in a 2008 memo), that it has found traces of jihadists’ operational dna in, can you believe it, on-line fantasy games of violence and warfare. jeez, what won’t these nut cases do next?

    but right down at the end of the guardian’s story there are these final few sentences:

    “… Hezbollah is not, however, the only organisation to have considered using games for recruiting. As the NSA document acknowledges: they got the idea from the US army.

    “America’s Army is a US army-produced game that is free [to] download from its recruitment page,” says the NSA, noting the game is “acknowledged to be so good at this the army no longer needs to use it for recruitment, they use it for training”…”

  2. Frank33 says:

    Let us be fair to the Government. They are providing free video games to juveniles. And they also supply “reefer” and booze to the kids. Mentally ill juveniles are helped by this government program, except for the mentally ill juveniles who get arrested.

    Even, better, there were hot chicks provided, to purchase their guns and drugs. Money for nothin’ and chicks for free!

    Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to come in and play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. In Portland, attorneys for three teens who were charged said a female agent dressed provocatively, flirted with the boys and encouraged them to bring drugs and weapons to the store to sell.

  3. orionATL says:

    obviously, there is a serious need for virtual drones to operate in this virtual space.

    john brennan, are you listening? there’s demons to be blistered.

    mchael hayden, are you listening? there’s money to be made.

  4. What Constitution? says:

    From the past three days, I can’t decide whether I feel safer because (1) the US government has been protecting me by monitoring those playing online video games; (2)the US government has come up with such a spiffy octopus enveloping the globe logo to convey the essence of my protections; or (3) Kobe is back for the Lakers. So much to be thankful for. I enjoy a game of Risk now and again; should I turn myself in somewhere or will it suffice if I only play Risk’s online version? For that matter, any words I should avoid playing in Words With Friends?

  5. rosalind says:

    @Frank33: i encourage everyone to read the article at this link. rage inducing. two other fav bits:

    * “In other stings, agents ran fake pawnshops and readily bought stolen items, such as electronics and bikes — no questions asked — spurring burglaries and theft.”

    * “Many of the problems stem from poor management in the field divisions coupled with pressure on agents to make cases and prove their worth, he said. ‘Unfortunately, when it comes to reporting to Congress for budget reasons, the numbers are all that count,” the agent said. ‘It is hard to define in a meaningful way to Congress that arresting one person with a long criminal history of 15 felonies is better than arresting 15 people with one felony each.'”

  6. orionATL says:

    @What Constitution?:

    go with kobe. even old, the dude can still defend and score.

    those other two groups always seem to play defense two steps behind the bomb,

    and couldn’t score from the top of a stepladder.

  7. Rayne says:

    This infuriates me. Absolutely makes me see red.

    You know the way things have slowly drip-dripped that this is just the thumb in the dam, that this was and is much, MUCH bigger.

    These assholes at the NSA are now messing in spaces where American children and teens play. They are using minors’ playgrounds, like creepy pedophiles looking for what?

    My kid has played for years with other people from around the world in online gaming. It has been a great equalizer in that he could see people in other cultures as folks like him — people with similar interests no matter their language or country of origin. And now the NSA made this space a honeypot to gather metadata, while making kids like mine a target for other country’s political enmity?

    Jeebus. These assholes clearly have no perspective of the long-term needs of this country whatsoever.

  8. Frank33 says:

    This is somewat OT although Kim Dotcom of MegaUpload seems to be a computer game and WoW addict. The US Department of Justice for Corporations is sharing evidence in the MegaUpload case with their Hollywood Overlords.

    Government persecutors can share evidence with private corporations, that is denied to the defendants including Kim Dotcom. Hollywood is being rewarded for their pro-war propaganda. Those with the gold make the rules.

    Megaupload’s legal team is protesting against a sealed court order which allows the U.S. Government to share evidence from the Megaupload case with copyright holders. The Government believes this is necessary to assist rightsholders in potential civil action against the defunct file-hosting site. According to Megaupload’s legal team, however, allowing the Government to spread a “one-sided, cherry-picked set of facts” will hurt its former users and infect the jury pool.

    After five months without any progress in the criminal case against Megaupload, Kim Dotcom’s legal team has discovered that the U.S. Government has been granted permission to share critical case evidence with copyright industry groups.

  9. C says:

    @Rayne: I don’t think that they care. (EDIT: I’m certain that they don’t care)

    If you are so head up your ass egotistical that you build a state-funded Star Trek Themed Command Center while unemployment hangs at 7+% then you clearly don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but yourself.

    Whoever came up with this is just so insulated from the rest of the world, and the realities of it, that they just see another “space” to colonize another world to monitor.

    As EW has noted before their opportunity cost calculus is way WAAY off.

  10. TheraP says:

    Sorta “tongue in cheek” – but not completely. This whole “World of Spycraft” (I love the title!) makes me think we need to expand our view of what spook-sponsored, addle- brained craziness is going on here – in the ever-expanding ways of spying on us.

    So I’m reading this post and the comments, and I’m thinking: “Ok, here am I in a retirement community near a historically pretty leftist city, a city I’ve come to characterize as the “Palace of Prius” because even a hefty number of the taxis are Prius taxis, let alone plenty of them privately owned, including parked right here – in the very garage of the retirement folk. (Not to speak of parking lot cars, coming and going.)”

    And I’m asking myself: “Now, could it be that the Prius is also a “hot-spot” for spying potential? Could Toyota, for example, have agreed to wire every Prius so that it can send all my/our conversations directly to the nsa? Or, alternatively, are we being followed, our “contacts” listed, our whereabouts tracked? Are the elderly baby-boomers with so much time on our hands potential targets? After all we marched and demonstrated and still have our oars in. (And… while not all of us drive a Prius, does it take a spook to notice that one of the easiest ways to find a fellow leftie is to follow a Prius?)

    We need to put our thinking caps on. Or our tin-foil hats. Because this whole shebang is likely far weirder than we might ever have suspected. So consider the potentials… If not actual, then virtual, or at the very least humorous.

  11. TarheelDem says:

    What a great way for the techies at NSA to convince their bosses to let them play multi-user internet games at work!

    And then there’s the more sinister explanation.

  12. Anonsters says:

    My fav-o part is the LA Times link EW buried at the bottom of the story. Why? Let me summarize it: “CIA failed miserably at the one thing CIA is supposed to do well.” Wups. Also because an anonymous source used “Joe Schmuckatelli” as an example.

    Really, though. If CIA can’t do really basic HUMINT, WhyTF does it still exist at all?

  13. greengiant says:

    As having delved too many hours into virtual gaming I must say that there seem to be too many nutjobs on line for there not to be at least some government contractor provocateur recruiting entrapment quota finder fee types like lulzsec feeding on either autistic or culturally alienated teens.

  14. Peterr says:

    @TarheelDem: Indeed.

    I have this picture of a hardcore gamer going to his/her boss at the NSA . . .

    Gamer: Boss, there’s this online game that I think we need to look into. Lots of direct communications going on outside of the reach of regular taps and stuff. The terrorists could be using them to plot now, right under our noses.
    Boss: That’s terrible. We should get on this right away.
    Gamer: Well, it would be tough, but I could set aside what I’m working on right now, and devote my full attention to this new and growing threat.
    Boss: Go for it.
    Gamer: You’re the boss.

    Think about how many gamers would love to have a boss like this. “You mean I HAVE to play games? Well, OK . . .”

    But it gets better.

    When they head for home and their honey wants them to put down the keyboard and do some project around the house that they’d rather not do, they can always fall back on “But my boss TOLD me I have to play these online games! It’s my job!!”

  15. C says:

    @Peterr: A few years ago I would dismiss this kind of thing as hyperbole. Sadly, after reading about some of the peace rally/bake sales that Das Homeland security has spied upon I think that you may very well be onto something here.

  16. klynn says:

    I suggested this possibility to my son when he wrote a paper on online gaming 3 years ago. He told me I was a CT and paranoid. Yesterday, he called and apologized. The NSA revelations as a whole have had him looking at Mom in a positive light.

    BTW, I think a local tv station s starting to read EW. Just wish they would acknowledge it.

  17. klynn says:

    I suggested this possibility to my son when he wrote a paper on online gaming 3 years ago. He told me I was a CT and paranoid. Yesterday, he called and apologized. The NSA revelations as a whole have had him looking at Mom in a positive light.

    BTW, I think a local tv station s starting to read EW. Just wish they would acknowledge it.

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