By: Brian Crecente
We live in a time when privacy is a quaint notion. The idea that what you say, no matter where you say it, might be kept private seems increasingly antiquated. Phones are tapped, emails read and now video games monitored.
In the latest revelation plucked from the voluminous documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we discover that the British and American governments, not content to spy just on the lives of their citizens, also sift through the secrets shared in those citizens’ virtual lives.
Video games are, according to one NSA analyst, “an opportunity!” The analyst exuberantly writes of the potential for abusing this nascent form of expression. Online video games, according to the report, need to be methodically tracked and infiltrated, the data within indexed and scoured for clues.
To gamers, of course, games and the communication networks built around them, aren’t the objects of spycraft, they are places where lasting friendships are forged.
It’s more likely that a spy would stumble upon a budding romance in World of Warcraft or Second Life than a plot to overthrow a government. It is within these virtual worlds that gamers might strive to raise money for a friend in need or to offer their emotional support. There is, despite the anonymity, despite the obvious fiction of games, a sense of trust between gamers who come to know one another online.
In playing these online games, we gamers are extending that trust to the developers who created, and could so easily spy upon, these gaming networks.
Ironically, one reason online video games sparked such a feeding frenzy among the intelligence community is because of that inherent trust gamers seem to have of the people who make their games. It seems shocking, even to the analyst, that such trust could exist in this day and age.
And in retrospect, why should it?
Where once games were made and published by a tight-knit community of hobbyists and fans, now some of the biggest games, some of the biggest entertainment properties in the world, are the product of vast teams of artists, writers, coders and business people. It was these motley collections of dreamers and bean-counters who began constructing massive, complex systems for seemingly private communication inside games.
The trust built up by those early game developers was somehow passed on to these emerging entertainment monopolies and the networks they built. Gamers forgot to stop trusting these corporate gatekeepers even as the times, and the people who built what they played, changed. Many gamers continued to trust as these rich networks for semi-private conversations grew up around them.
Where once a gamer was putting their trust in a favorite game maker, now they find themselves, perhaps accidentally, trusting Microsoft, or Sony, or Nintendo – all large companies more concerned about their bottom line then about the person spending that money.
Even if gamers felt some trepidation surrounding these massive companies now running their hobbies, few seemed to worry about the bigger concern, the issue of who might be aware of what they said every time they played a game. Someone, government spy, curious employer, could always be listening.
That it was the government and not some company caught flipping through the private conversations of gamers is likely the result of luck, not circumstance. Wherever there are people talking, there will always be people listening.
Should gamers expect that their privacy be respected by the people who make the games they play? Absolutely. But the same should be said of our governments.
Any tool for communication, even one in something as seemingly innocuous as video games, can be spied upon and can be, as world governments continue to prove, abused.
The reality is that real privacy is a word whispered to a friend and the hope – even then only hope – that your friend keeps it secret.
This article originally ran in The Guardian on Dec. 10, 2013.