To learn spying software, NSA analysts “unlock achievements” to win “skilz”

Just another day at the NSA.
Just another day at the NSA.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Late last month, the Guardian explained how Xkeyscore, a tool used by the US National Security Agency, is used by analysts to examine online communications with great precision. Xkeyscore is impressive in its breadth:

The purpose of XKeyscore is to allow analysts to search the metadata as well as the content of emails and other internet activity, such as browser history, even when there is no known email account (a “selector” in NSA parlance) associated with the individual being targeted.

Analysts can also search by name, telephone number, IP address, keywords, the language in which the internet activity was conducted or the type of browser used.

Notable among the many follow-up stories is one posted in English today by Der Spiegel, a respected German magazine. The piece looks at the relationship between German intelligence and the NSA, data collection on German soil, and the use of Xkeyscore from a base in Hesse, a state in the west of the country. According to Der Spiegel, NSA analysts raved about Xkeyscore once they got the hang of it, but it took time to train them. Buried within the piece is this nugget:

To create additional motivation [to learn how to use Xkeyscore], the NSA incorporated various features from computer games into the program. For instance, analysts who were especially good at using XKeyscore could acquire “skilz” points and “unlock achievements.” The training units in Hesse were apparently successful. ECC [European Cryptologic Center, an NSA outpost in Germany] analysts had achieved the “highest average of skilz points” compared with all other NSA departments participating in the training program.

The NSA is using what’s referred to, generally without irony, as “gamification.” The ugliness of the word is exceeded only by what it means. Gamification refers to using game mechanics such as levels, points, rewards, and competition in real-world contexts. That generally means incentives like being awarded badges, or indeed “skilz”. Everything can be gamified: health, education, lovebusinessgovernment, charity, customer relations management and sales, saving the world—and even, it turns out, spying.