The New York Times has published some delightful linkbait from their Snowden files about American intelligence agents searching for terrorists inside the World of Warcraft and other online “massive multiplayer” games, including Second Life. That would be fine, but the piece makes all of this sound like something we would not have known without Edward Snowden, and that verges on journalistic malpractice. We have in fact known about this program for almost six years.
Be careful who you frag. Having eliminated all terrorism in the real world, the U.S. intelligence community is working to develop software that will detect violent extremists infiltrating World of Warcraft and other massive multiplayer games, according to a data-mining report from the Director of National Intelligence.
That was Ryan Singel at Wired, who actually reported the program’s name. For whatever reason, Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliot saw fit to elide any reference to the “Reynard project” from their article in the Times. Maybe they were protecting sources and methods? Or maybe there’s some institutional rivalry at work here, because the Times was pretty much scooped completely on this story by Wired in 2008. How realistic are terror threats via online games? Noah Schachtman wrote up this quote for the site’s Danger Room over five years ago:
Steven Aftergood, the Federation of the American Scientists analyst who’s been following the intelligence community for years, wonders how realistic these sorts of scenarios are, really. “This concern is out there. But it has to be viewed in context. It’s the job of intelligence agencies to anticipate threats and counter them. With that orientation, they’re always going to give more weight to a particular scenario than an objective analysis would allow,” he tells Danger Room. “Could terrorists use Second Life? Sure, they can use anything. But is it a significant augmentation? That’s not obvious. It’s a scenario that an intelligence officer is duty-bound to consider. That’s all.”
If a new country suddenly existed tomorrow, you can be sure American intelligence agencies would want to know all about it, and the CIA would send visitors to check out the lay of the land. A new online world is not very different: American spies have every reason and right to explore it and determine what potential threats may exist there. The FBI, CIA, and Pentagon all seem to have decided that World of Warcraft was more dangerous to unicorns and dragons than the United States of America, but the New York Times seems to have decided that the program is still newsworthy because, y’know, Snowden documents.
In the age of Greenwaldian linkbait, that’s all the excuse they need to charge ahead like Leeroy Jenkins.