Privacy Expectations in Online Video Games: In Light of Edward Snowden’s NSA Document Leak

By: Matthew Knopf

Introduction: On December 9, 2013, the British Newspaper The Guardian published documents from the National Security Administration (“NSA documents”) provided by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. These documents revealed that surveillance agencies of the United States and United Kingdom governments were conducting intelligence operations in a search for terrorists inside of massive multiplayer online (“MMO”) video games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. The documents contained a memo and a series of essays that detailed the ways in which video games, even those video games that do not directly connect to the Internet, could be used as recruitment and communication tools for terrorists. However, these operations have brought about privacy concerns for some who worry that their government could or would listen to their conversations as they are playing these videos games. It is not clear how the government collected or accessed the data or communication from these video games. It is likely that government agents created their own profiles and avatars in these games to access the virtual worlds. Additionally, privacy concerns have not be assuaged by the fact that there is no indication from the documents that any of the intelligence operations led to the foiling of any terrorist plots or to the arrest of any criminal. The National Security Administration (“NSA”) and the federal government may have free reign to spy on foreign peoples and foreign governments, but under the U.S. Constitution it does not have the legal authority to spy on American citizens without a warrant.

Online video games have players who live across the globe and within the United States. Many of the computer servers on which the video games operate and communicate are inside of the United States. Since the intelligence collecting process has not been revealed, it is unclear if the NSA or other federal agencies have been accessing the data and the monitoring communications of innocent Americans whose identity and nationality may have been concealed behind their virtual avatar. The debate over the expectation of privacy concerning different types of Internet communication is growing, especially concerning social media. Violations of privacy could hinder player anonymity, which is a key component of certain types of online gaming that encourages escapism. On the other hand, ending anonymity could encourage fairer and more civil discourse in the virtual gaming worlds. The revelations of these documents has led to the question of whether there are any expectations of privacy for video game players and the communications between players which occur within those video games.

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