US Government Expands Anti-Terrorist Data Mining to Video Game Consoles

US Government Expands Anti-Terrorist Data Mining to Video Game Consoles

  • By: CM Boots-Faubert
  • Posted 9th Apr 2012

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GU News Desk -- 9 April 2012 -- Gaming sites all over the web have picked up and run with the recent news story about the US Government and its intentions to develop a console-hacking capability to add video game systems to the resources used for intelligence gathering in the war on terror -- with some sites claiming that the US Navy is hiring hackers to assist in the development of this capability.

Recent coverage online paints a picture of government watchdogs, spies, and hackers literally climbing up your network connection to spy on your console, but that is not actually the point -- or the capability -- for this new program, whose primary function is to develop hardware and software that will permit the government to break the encryption protecting the contents on game consoles like Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, so that they can access chat and communications logs stored upon the hard drives of consoles that they actually have in their possession, and not systems that are connected to the Internet remotely.

The program, which is being overseen as a joint effort by the US Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, in cooperation with key figures at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), is not seeking to develop technology that will permit live monitoring of console gamers, as is being suggested online in news reports by games journalists, but is seeking to find ways to break the encryption used on the data storage devices connected to consoles, which while that encryption is present to prevent game piracy, also prevents the government from viewing the contents of the drives.

Live communications via the Internet -- such as text messaging and voice or voice + video chats -- between game consoles can already be monitored by the government through man-in-the-middle sniffing on Internet switches, but actually obtaining the data on a physical console in their possession, which is a key capability that the government wants to add to its forensic examinations tool kit, is presently not possible. The new research project is hoped to fix that weakness.

A source at the ONI who insisted upon anonymity because they were not authorised to speak with the press explained: "We have not received a lot of media inquiries, but some of the ones that we have got this all wrong. This is not about wire-tapping gamers or monitoring their conversations online; we already do that. It's about enabling law enforcement to access logs and saved conversations on game consoles, which are increasingly being used for communication online by suspect elements -- not just terrorists. There are a lot of child molesters that use their game consoles for trading information and for finding children online to molest," they said. "There is definitely interest in being able to recover their chat logs from game consoles and identify the people that they are talking to, but the data encryption used by the game systems is a problem."

This current research effort,"The Gaming Systems Monitoring and Analysis Project," began in 2008 as a natural offshoot of another government monitoring program called "Project Reynard" -- the existence of which was revealed in 2008 in a declassified report to Congress by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created as part of the overall data mining strategy being developed by a group under the ODNI's Office of Science and Technology called Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. The focus for Project Reynard was monitoring gamer communications in Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games.

The interest in developing these capabilities is not to monitor the average gamer, but rather it is to detect and monitor agents and supporters of Al Qaeda, Al-Jihad, Chukaku-Ha, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Sendero Luminoso, and the Abu Sayyaf Group -- terrorist organizations with established anti-American agendas who all have something in common: their rank and file is populated by young college-age men and women who like to play video games.