Imagine a terrorist group in Central Asia that wants to fund an attack inside the United States. They have the cash, but banking restrictions on the group’s country make it impossible to transfer money to a U.S. based cell through conventional means, so they need to find another method.
What they can do instead, is hire some talented gamers to “farm” resources in a popular game for them. That is to say, play the game constantly, gathering virtual currency all the time. They would also need an associate in the U.S., with access to a peer-to-peer payments system, such as PayPal.
The terrorist group, through the labor of its own hired gamers, transforms its cash into virtual currency. The U.S. associate, via online message boards, advertises the virtual currency for sale. Buyers make payments via PayPal, and receive instructions to virtually “meet” one of the terrorist group’s hired gamers, and receive the amount of virtual currency they have purchased.
The terror group’s funds are now in a U.S. bank, with no evidence as to their origin.
There was a tidal wave of anti-National Security Agency snark on social media sites today, after reports that the spy agency and its counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, had infiltrated popular online role-playing games in an effort to gain information about terrorist and criminal organizations.
While it’s pretty amusing to imagine an NSA operative hunched over a screen trying to virtually eavesdrop on a conversation between a green-skinned orc and a bipedal cow, the idea that bad guys might be lurking in Azeroth – or whatever virtual world you frequent – isn’t at all far-fetched.
This isn’t to justify what appears to have been extensive virtual surveillance of innocent online gamers, but it’s not completely crazy for law enforcement to be interested in what goes on in the virtual world.
First and foremost, the games allow for communications between players worldwide and in real time. If law enforcement can get a warrant to intercept the calls of a drug lord, getting a warrant to listen in on his level 14 Paladin doesn’t seem like such a stretch. (Though gathering the communications of everyone who happens to be playing at the same time as him raises serious privacy questions.
But it’s not just about communications.
In June, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a paper as part of its series on tracing dirty money that found so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) were actually a serious threat when it comes to the illicit movement of money across borders.
The paper, written Jean-Loup Richet, of the Institute for Strategic Innovation & Services, found that “Online role playing games provide an easy way for criminals to launder money. This frequently involves the opening of numerous different accounts on various online games to move money.”
The most popular of these games, which include titles such as “World of Warcraft” and “Final Fantasy” attract millions of dedicated players and have a complex and vibrant in-game economy. Advancement requires resources, and resources can be hard to obtain, so many people are willing to cheat by purchasing online currency from other players for real-world cash.
Because of this, a minor industry built upon transforming real money into virtual money, and back again, has sprung up, giving bad guys an opportunity.
“Using the virtual currency systems in these games criminals in one country can send virtual money to associates in another country,” writes Richet. “Then, the virtual money can be transferred into real money, with the criminals leaving no trace of evidence authorities could follow back to them.”
So for online gamers, there are really two takeaways from today’s news. That nice dwarf online offering to sell you some gold for real dollars might be a terrorist. And that elf standing behind him might just be with the NSA.
Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver
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