When I first launched the category, I reserved the "Panic in the Streets" tag for stories that purported to shock readers with tales of a personal threat - usually from new technology - but lacked any examples of the bad thing actually happening. "The IRS is checking your Facebook posts to decide when to audit you," was the classic of the genre. Of course, since publication, that particular example has become a lot more plausible.
Today's New York Times feature by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott on spies playing online roll-playing games just in case terrorists are using them to pass messages falls more on the ironic side - as in, 'I can't believe my tax dollars paying for this.'
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, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. 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.
Not since the Securities and Exchange Commission exposed attorneys on payroll who did nothing all day but surf porn sites has there been a major media story on how government workers collect money for nothing.
The NYT's scoop (shared with ProPublica, for which Elliott writes) keeps getting better as it goes:
But for all their enthusiasm — so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.
So we're back to the 1950s, when communist groups in the U.S. had so many FBI informants in them there were no real communists there for them to catch (but it sure beat enforcing civil rights laws or other more dangerous assignments).
When asked, the government basically admits this is all ridiculuous and that they have been paying their spies to play World of Warcraft and similar games for no reason.
The documents, obtained by The Guardian and shared with The New York Times and ProPublica, do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort. Former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.
It's so hard not to be an Edward Snowden fan when stuff like this publishes because of his leaks.