Does the NSA have its own guild? And other questions we thought we’d never ask

For this week’s new media theory class I had put the subject of privacy on the syllabus—and the universe certainly did respond with a lot of topical material. First, a gaggle of Internet-based media companies released an open letter December 9 calling for privacy reform. The “Reform Government Surveillance” declaration, signed by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, encourages establishing clear limits to and conditions for government data-gathering efforts. The open letter likely comes in response to public outrage in recent months about the collusion between the government and digital media and telecommunication providers to tap the information pipelines running through our computers and phones.

But in a more funny-scary vein, news reports confirmed this week that NSA overreach has gone beyond this world to ensnare the fictional plane of Azeroth: government agents are now disguising themselves as elves and dwarves to infiltrate MMORPGs. The New York Times released a video on the subject:

Perhaps the feds have been reading too much Neal Stephenson—or maybe employees just want to play videogames at work. But putting aside the ridiculousness, inefficiency, and creepiness of using game worlds to catch or commit terrorism, there is something Cold-War quaint—even poignant—about the idea of counter-espionage as personal, clandestine actions simulated by avatars in digital spaces. If online gaming is conducive to so many kinds of cultural re-creation (built environment, political and social structures, arts and crafts, interpersonal communication, and so on), then perhaps a more romanticized, 1950s notion of espionage and counter-espionage is also being played out in such fantasy worlds. For many NSA employees, real-world spy games probably involve little more than crunching data. But donning a cloak of invisibility to infiltrate a suspicious party of elves—perhaps that is when a counter-terrorism analyst feels closest to his calling.

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