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SPY VS. SPY The Game Is Afoot

Carlos Roa
Carlos Roa is an analyst at the Belgrade-based Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), and associate editor of the center’s flagship publication Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development.

In a 1932 article for the American Historical Review, the legendary maritime historian Robert G. Albion commented on the then-ongoing “communications revolution,” which in his view “has knit the world closer together…widened the horizons of every community, partly through the rapid dissemination of news and partly through the breaking down of provincialism with new facilities for travel.” To highlight this, Albion pointed out the decreasing time lag between momentous events and news of said events reaching distant locations. “When Fort Sumter was fired upon,” he wrote, “the news reached Boston that morning but took twelve days to reach England. When the Maine was blown up, the London Times carried a full account a few hours later. At the outbreak of the World War, even the ships at sea were informed at once.”

In the present day, one could say that the communications revolution has reached a new zenith. It is not just that communications occur in real time, but that they do so for virtually everyone. Moreover, other advanced technologies that were once solely the domain of governments and intelligence agencies are now available to individuals on an affordable basis—if not absolutely free. Both state and private actors can now rapidly build and expand communications networks that are robust and secure.

These developments have led to the emergence of a new phenomenon, which I call gamified intelligence networks, or GINs. A GIN is a network of actors infused, to one extent or another, with game-design elements and principles and has been created—or is used, intentionally or unintentionally—to pursue specific goals, often having to do with information-gathering, intelligence collection, or the conduct of espionage-related activities. These networks are now poised to begin playing an impactful albeit controversial role in modern society.

The idea of the GIN is not entirely new. In British science fiction author Charles Stross’s 2007 novel Halting State, the protagonists discover (spoiler warning) that the popular Augmented Reality Game (ARG) SPOOKS is both a front and cover for a European intelligence agency conducting espionage activities. They meet Michaels, a senior intelligence figure, who explains:

…we’re going through the biggest renaissance in HUMINT—HUMan INTelligence—since the Cold War. It’s all mediated through artificial reality and live-action role-playing games like SPOOKS […]: adding the power of electronic information gathering to human espionage. Would you believe it used to cost us ten thousand euros a day to put a full surveillance team on a suspect? Now we’ve got volunteers who’ll pay us to let them do our leg work!

Some of the applications of a GIN raised by Stross, such as having unwitting civilians conduct the espionage equivalent of grunt work, are likely a bridge too far for serious intelligence services; they would have to give up far too much control over certain activities in exchange for results delivered by unprofessional individuals that aren’t fully trusted. Other possible applications, however, certainly merit interest.

One of these is the usage of a popular game as a cover for conducting espionage-related activities. Consider last year’s release of the wildly popular ARG Pokémon Go: using the GPS device in players’ phones, the game instructs players to find and “capture” virtual creatures (the eponymous Pokémon) through an augmented reality display on phone screens. Readers may recall that Pokémon Go quickly became a global sensation, and is notable for the effect it had on human behavior. In their drive to acquire new Pokémon, people sometimes seemingly abandoned common sense and conventional regard for rules and norms; players often had to be forced away from active railway tracks, fire stations, restricted hospital areas, and even government/military buildings. It is not hard to imagine one of those “players” as a clever, young intelligence officer who took advantage of Pokémania to case a site or conduct some sort of operation. In one known case, a French citizen in Indonesia was caught on the grounds of a military base while searching, he claimed, for Pokémon. He was later released with no punishment.

In fact, governments around the world reacted swiftly in response to this very real possibility of Pokémon Go-enabled espionage. The U.S. Department of Defense banned the playing of the game while inside the Pentagon over concerns that the game could “facilitate foreign spying,” especially since the game’s usage of GPS data could “provide pinpoint accuracy on the locations of rooms and other sensitive facilities where secrets are stored.” The Russian government’s Minister of Communications and Mass Media, Nikolai Nikiforov, stated that he suspected “intelligence services might have contributed to [Pokémon Go]” with the intention of “collect(ing) video-information” about different locations around the world. In a report by Al Jazeera, Hamdi Bakheet, an Egyptian parliamentarian who sits on the defense committee, said that the game “is the latest tool used by spy agencies in the intel war, a cunning despicable app that tries to infiltrate our communities in the most innocent way under the pretext of entertainment. But all they really want is to spy on people and the state.”

Likewise, a GIN working off a game like Pokémon Go could also serve the inverse purpose: to expose foreign agents. Suppose if intelligence agencies created, via an intermediary, a small game that has some form of “official permission” to play in areas near government offices, certain facilities, and such. The game itself is a form of bait, as there is a greater chance that foreign agents interested in casing these sites would sign up for it as a cover for their activities. At the very least, it would help narrow down a list of suspects.

GINs can have other applications for governments and intelligence services. Just as the United States Army uses the video game franchise America’s Army as a tool for military recruitment, so too could intelligence services use specialized GINs to facilitate the recruitment of talented individuals. As an example, consider the contemporary video game/ARG known as The Black Watchmen, which dubs itself as “the first permanent alternative reality game.” The Black Watchmen has players taking up the role of a global paramilitary group dedicated to protecting the public from dangerous occult and spiritual phenomena. Players are given “missions,” distributed through the game client on their computers, that require solving puzzles pertaining to an investigation of the supernatural. The company behind The Black Watchmen, Alice & Smith, devotes considerable resources to research and collaboration with academic and technical experts in order to achieve realism. Alice & Smith are currently working on a new game entitled NITE Team 4,1 a “hacking simulation game” in which players take up the role of a new recruit in a sophisticated military cyberwarfare cell. Using a system based on real world military and industry cybersecurity tools, the game tasks players with carrying out missions inspired by leaked NSA documents.

The puzzles in Alice & Smith’s games are complex, and more often than not require collaborative teamwork to solve. These include codebreaking, investigating dummy websites that exist to support game narratives, analyzing collected evidence for clues, identifying persons of interest, facilitating infiltration into suspected organizations, and more. These tasks, of course, bear more than a passing resemblance to the work of intelligence analysts: signals intelligence interception, open-source intelligence analysis, collaboration with on-the-ground units engaged in espionage activities, and so forth. It isn’t too difficult to imagine the CIA or NSA deciding to create a GIN like The Black Watchmen or NITE Team 4 with the intent of facilitating the recruitment of the next generation of intelligence analysts.

Indeed some have argued that they have already done so, in the form of the online sensation known as “Cicada 3301.” Claiming that they “are looking for highly intelligent individuals,” the group known as Cicada 3301 has posted a series of puzzles and challenges online on at least six separate occasions. According to an article by the Telegraph, these puzzles require extensive knowledge of a variety subjects, including “number theory, philosophy, and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature and the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of Mayan numerology.” Because of the high complexity and collaborative nature of these puzzles, and because of the placement of clues in over a dozen global cities (including Paris, Mexico City, Seoul, Moscow, Sydney, and so forth), many commentators have speculated that the entire effort is, in the Telegraph’s words, “a recruitment drive by the CIA, MI6, or America’s National Security Agency, as a part of a search for highly talented cryptologists.”

In addition to providing operational cover, rooting out foreign agents, and facilitating recruitment, there is a fourth way in which intelligence services can use GINs: the exploitation of unsuspecting civilians. This is a tricky and controversial proposition, and highly unlikely (if not outright illegal) in the case of Western agencies, which must operate under the rule of law. Other nations and their intelligence services, however, might not be so restrained. In Russia, after all, there is a term for such individuals: polezniye duraki, or “useful fools” (often translated as “useful idiots”). Could civilians manipulated by a GIN be unwitting tools, in some manner or another, of a foreign power? Could some limited influence actually be exerted over their behavior?

The evidence suggests that it is at least possible. A 2012 paper titled “Crowd Soft Control: Moving Beyond the Opportunistic,” by John Rula and Fabián E. Bustamante of Northwestern University, explains how researchers were able to “soft control” individuals by tapping into mobile gaming applications. To test this “soft control,” the researchers created an ARG akin to Pokémon Go dubbed Ghost Hunter, in which a player “chases ghosts and other monsters around her neighborhood and ‘zaps’ them by capturing their photo [on their phone] through an augmented reality display, for which she is awarded points.” For this test, these “ghosts” were placed in locations both frequently traveled and well out of the way of pedestrians. The goal was to see if players, motivated by the points incentive, were willing to travel to out-of-the-way locations in order to “zap” more ghosts and thus collect more points. Indeed they were, according to the study.

In addition, Pokémon Go also shows us what is possible when people become too absorbed by a game. Some have played the game while driving, resulting in deaths and injuries through carelessness. A crowd of players in a Japanese city caused a stampede and a massive traffic jam as a result of their efforts to capture a rare Pokémon. In Bosnia players apparently had to be warned not to venture into areas still suspected of containing unexploded mines from the war in the 1990s. One can cite dozens of such stories. Overall the game has proven to have the potential to be both socially disruptive and, if players pay little attention to their surroundings, life-threatening. That an ARG can exert enough influence on individuals as to convince them to literally wander into minefields is a sure sign of its effectiveness as an agent of “soft control.”

It is not hard then to imagine how a foreign intelligence agency or state could take advantage of this capability. Being able to spontaneously cause people to congregate or move around in certain environments can cause confusion, chaos, or even distraction, which is useful in a variety of situations. As a possible scenario, imagine if a foreign intelligence service needed to quickly enter and exit a secure office location while drawing as little attention as possible. Deciding that creating a distraction would be the best way to proceed, the agency could use a popular game like Pokémon Go or a similar GIN (ideally one that they have some level of control over) to suddenly draw a crowd outside the target building—perhaps by reporting the sighting of some kind of “rare Pokémon,” or announcing a spontaneous “limited time event” that will gift participants a limited edition digital item if they show up. Given a popular enough game, this effort could draw a large crowd right to target building’s front door, enabling the agents to carry out their intended operation while the building’s guards are busy trying to handle the sudden mass of people and figure out where they came from.


The article's full-text is available here.

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