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How gamers eclipsed spies as an intelligence threat

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While the trajectory of the documents may seem novel, a closer look reveals that many significant intelligence leaks over the past 15 years have been substantially motivated by online reality. These leaks are not the product of espionage, media investigations, or political activism, but 21st-century digital culture: specifically, by the desire to gain stature among online friends.

Beginning in 2021, for example, secret information about weapons systems design and performance has repeatedly been posted to forums related to War Thunder, a massively multiplayer combat video game featuring highly realistic weapons. Hoping to win arguments about such details as a tank turret’s rotation speed or cajole developers into improving the realism of virtual weapons, players have posted classified armour blueprints, restricted manuals for F-16 fighter jets, and Chinese tank specifications. War Thunder’s developers have had to implore users to stop posting classified materials to the game’s forums.

US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s involvement with WikiLeaks began when she started monitoring – and then actively participating in – the forum’s chat channel. Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP

Even where ideological commitments have motivated leakers, internet culture has often played a major role. US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning’s involvement with WikiLeaks began when she started monitoring – and then actively participating in – the forum’s chat channel. Her decision to leak diplomatic cables was initially motivated by debates about Icelandic politics on the WikiLeaks channel.

When one looks at Manning’s conversations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others on the channel, they read very much like someone trying to connect with and impress her new internet friends; later, it was a similar desire to connect online that led to her arrest. Edward Snowden, too, attributed his decision to leak documents about National Security Agency surveillance programs to his concerns that they undermined the values he cherished as an avid denizen of early internet forums and chatrooms: anonymity, self-expression and the right to reinvent oneself. (Snowden is now a Russian citizen living in Moscow.)

Access to classified documents, such as those shared by Teixeira, requires a government clearance. Given the potential for human frailty, the process for obtaining one has long included assessments designed to gauge whether someone might be prone to sell secrets, have an exploitable secret such as a concealed drug problem, or become entangled in a romantic relationship. Counterintelligence professionals warn of the risks of psychological manipulation by foreign agents looking to con targets into divulging information.

Gift economies

What drives this new kind of leak, however, is a different kind of social bond. Greasing the wheels of the globe-spanning US national security system are tens of thousands of technically gifted young people – just like the 21-year-old Teixeira. By virtue of their jobs and missions, they may find themselves socially isolated, moving around, deployed abroad or working strange hours. They can’t talk about their work with friends or family. They may also find themselves ill at ease with the work culture inside their agencies.

Instead, they may find solace, joy and real connection where so many others of their generation do: playing video games or chatting with others on the internet who share their interests or ideas. As Manning explained, online chats with WikiLeaks volunteers “allowed me to feel connected to others even when alone. They helped me pass the time and keep motivated throughout the deployment”.

There is an additional motivation driving this new kind of leak. Internet communities operate as gift economies, where one’s status is largely determined by the valuable content one brings to the community – spicy memes, obscure videos, interesting links, or secrets. Interviews with Teixeira’s friends trace an evolution: he began by posting summaries of classified secrets he had access to, establishing himself as a person worth knowing, a real-life Jason Bourne. This earned him something of a fandom. Younger members absorbed not only the secrets he relayed but also OG’s opinions about them, which included conspiracy theories. When his fans’ attention seemed to flag, he apparently grew frustrated and began posting images of documents directly.

There seemed to be a high degree of trust and bonding within this small anonymous space. One member described the leaker as his best friend and commented that seeing the documents hop beyond Thug Shaker Central was something of a surprise – and a betrayal. Perhaps even more surprisingly, reporting by The Washington Post suggests that Teixeira was surprised, dismayed and scared by the journey his leaks had taken – as if he had never considered the real-world consequences of his online profile-building.

Agents associated with the Wagner Group, the Russian military contractor fighting in Ukraine, have been caught trying to infiltrate servers for the video game Minecraft. 

In the past, when national security professionals indulged in an inner fantasy life of adventure and intrigue, it might have manifested as hints dropped at dinner parties or a pseudonymously published spy novel. Today, online reality has increasingly taken on the characteristics of a role-playing video game, as one of the authors, Jonathan Askonas, has been chronicling at the New Atlantis.

The internet provides the chance to build a new identity, level up socially, show off to peers and build a more exciting life than the physical world affords. When the players are national security professionals whose day jobs are more boring than the secrets they happen to have access to, the temptation to leak information can be powerful – to settle an online argument, gain clout or impress one’s friends.

There are some obvious policy fixes to these new kinds of leaks. They include more sophisticated fingerprinting of classified documents and more calibrated restrictions on who has access to secret reports. But intelligence officials who may have found the leaks “incredibly weird” need to come to terms with how dramatically the counterintelligence landscape has changed.

Already, agents associated with the Wagner Group, the Russian military contractor fighting in Ukraine, have been caught trying to infiltrate servers for the video game Minecraft. Last Thursday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a review of the department’s procedures “to inform our efforts to prevent this kind of incident from happening again”. But adapting US counterintelligence efforts to an entirely new leak culture will take much more than a few procedural tweaks.

The fusion of intelligence operations and internet culture, long a theme of cyberpunk science fiction, is fast becoming reality. In a world where niche video game influencers moonlight as informants, FBI agents trawl K-Pop Discord servers for potential leakers, and AI-generated girlfriends operated by foreign intelligence agencies target lonely analysts, the future of counterintelligence will be digitally native.

The world of spy catchers will look less like John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and more like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Charles Stross’ Halting State. As Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins put it: “Sometimes it takes the terminally online to catch the terminally online.”

— Foreign Policy

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