Microsoft has told CVG it is "not aware" of any NSA surveillance activity on Xbox Live following fresh reports of government snooping on its online gaming network.
According to a new report, US and UK spy agencies have assembled technology that collects data from Xbox Live, and have infiltrated online games like World of Warcraft in a bid to uncover terrorist activities.
Microsoft has issued a statement in response, denying all knowledge of any government snooping, but not ruling out the possibility. "We're not aware of any surveillance activity," a Microsoft spokesperson told CVG. "If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent," they added.
One document, written by an NSA analyst to his superiors in 2008 and published on Monday, is titled 'Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments'.
The briefing called for government intelligence agencies to start collecting gamers' chat logs, and also suggested deploying real-life agents into virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life. These game communities were described as a "target-rich communications network" where targets could "hide in plain sight".
Infiltrating online gaming communities apparently became such a common practice among agencies including the NSA, its UK sister agency GCHQ, the FBI and CIA, that it was necessary to put in place measures to ensure these groups weren't inadvertently infringing on each other's work.
The report claims that, by September 2008, the agencies had built "mass-collection capabilities" against Xbox Live, including GCHQ succeeding in accessing discussions between different users of Microsoft's service, which has over 48 million account holders.
It also alleges that GCHQ and the NSA extracted World of Warcraft metadata in a bid to link "accounts, characters and guilds" to Islamic extremism and arms dealing efforts.
It is unclear whether the tranche of data leaked by Snowden shows that such surveillance had ever foiled any terrorism plots. Nor is it clear whether spy agencies had evidence suggesting terrorist organisations were using online gaming networks to communicate.
While it's unclear how the data was used, or how many communications were collected, the operations raise serious concerns about the privacy of gamers online.
While the NSA declined to comment on the reports revelations, a spokesperson for GCHQ said the agency did not "confirm or deny" them, but added: "All GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that its activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee."
A Blizzard spokesperson said: "We are unaware of any surveillance taking place. If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission."
Microsoft, which was revealed to have provided Skype data to the NSA in the past, did not respond to requests for comment.
Recently, a senior Microsoft executive downplayed speculation that Kinect could be used as an advertising platform, where a user's emotional state and response could be captured and sent to the advertiser, or as a device that captures video information without permission.
[Additional reporting: Mike Jackson]