US, British intelligence 'spying on virtual world': Report

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US and British intelligence have been spying on the global online gaming world because they fear terrorists could use the hugely popular platform to plot attacks, a report said Monday.

Spies have created characters in the fantasy worlds of Second Life and World of Warcraft to carry out surveillance, recruit informers and collect data, The New York Times said, citing newly disclosed classified documents from fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

The report came as eight leading US-based technology companies called on Washington to overhaul its surveillance laws following months of revelations of online eavesdropping from the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.

"Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels," the Times said.

"The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players," the report said.

It added: "Because militants often rely on features common to video games - fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions - American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers."

The report cited a 2008 NSA paper that warned that the virtual games - played by millions of people the world over - allowed intelligence suspects "a way to hide in plain sight." The documents do not give any examples of success from the initiative, the report said, adding that experts and former intelligence officials said "that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations." The surveillance, which also included Microsoft's Xbox Live, could raise privacy concerns, noted the newspaper.

Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL and LinkedIn meanwhile wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama and the US Congress calling on Washington to lead the way in a worldwide reform of state-sponsored spying.

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the letter said.