The NSA and Skilz: Turning spying on you into a video game

Collecting personal data on you is now a video game being played by government agencies that feel they can do whatever they want with their ‘game’

The NSA and Skilz: Turning spying on you into a video game

What could possibly be creepier than a government organization (such as the NSA) having nearly unlimited access to your private, personal information (including access to your webcam)? 

Turns out, the answer is: when it gets turned into a video game. And it appears, they have done this. 

On Dec. 1, 2016, Wikileaks released a collection of documents relating to the German parliament inquiry of the cooperation between the German foreign intelligence agency (the BND) and the United States’ NSA. 

One particular document (pdf) within that collection caught my attention. It appears to be a report from an official at the European Cryptologic Center (ECC) from April 13, 2012, detailing how they can improve usage of Xkeyscore (XKS) to collect information about people. 

[The document in question has been reviewed before, so this isn’t new information. It merely came to my attention via the WikiLeaks BND/NSA collection. Why this particular document and topic isn’t being talked about more actively by the press is somewhat baffling.] 

Let’s go over this bit by bit. 

“Combine these exciting finds with the introduction of XKS Skilz points, and you can see why McDonald’s teamed up with Monopoly years ago: people buy more and even super size their orders just to get game pieces. With the brainchild of Skilz, where analysts can earn points and unlock achievements for performing tasks in XKS, people are willing to try new things within the tool. Analysts think to themselves, ‘Using the Pivot Data feature will earn 30 points… I’m going to try it and see what happens.’ Discovery! Points! We have been lured by our geeky desire to unlock achievements and earn points, and bragging rights are everything.” 

You read that right. According to this document, using XKS to collect data (aka “spy”) on people has been turned into a game. With “Skilz” points. Note the super-hip spelling of “Skilz” with only one L and the oh-so-cutting-edge Z at the end. 

And there are “Achievements” to unlock. Queue all of the jokes along the lines of “Achievement Unlocked: Look at a child through a webcam without anyone finding out!” 

Let’s keep reading: 

“Definitely a number of users have gotten into the Skilz points. We have several people at level six. They see what they need to do to earn more points and start trying out different things.” 

So, the gaming system had been implemented (as of 2012) and was in active use. And there are at least six levels. 

“With traditional targeting, analysts cast their nets wide into the murky waters of network traffic and haul in anything that gets caught in the net. We are like Forrest Gump on his shrimping boat off the coast of Alabama pulling in a boot, toilet seat, seaweed, and there they are… three shrimp!”

In short: The approach is to collect as much data on individuals as possible, then hope there’s something in there you can use (aka “shrimp”). This has been known for quite some time, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Forrest Gump-based metaphor used to describe it.

“Maybe XKS is a seven-headed dragon as [redacted] mentioned. Big and scary? Sure. Strong and powerful? Oh yeah. But the ECC is taming it, and it is ours to do with whatever we like, including catching shrimp.” 

It is theirs “to do with whatever [they] like.” That statement reads like something a creepy super-villain from a Bond movie would say.

It’s almost as if turning this massively powerful surveillance tool (XKS) into a video game has in some way desensitized those using it—causing them to feel like the targets are not real people anymore, simply characters in a video game that must be spied on in order to get more points, levels and achievements. 

In short: Collecting personal data on you is now a video game being played by government agencies that feel they can do whatever they want with their “game.” “Skilz” seems sort of like FarmVille, except instead of planting crops, you’re spying on people. At least that’s the way it appears.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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