The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Navy have launched a new research initiative that will explore ways of allowing the government to hack into gaming consoles like the Xbox 360, Wii, or PlayStation 3 to obtain information on gamers.
According to DHS, the reason for tapping into game consoles is to find paedophiles, who are using communications networks on game systems to seek out victims. The project it also to seek out terrorists, which DHS believes are using consoles to communicate.
“Gaming Systems Monitoring and Analysis Project” was started in 2008, when law enforcement became worried about paedophiles using game consoles to talk to children. Law enforcement authorities went to DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate in search of help on an instrument that could observe game console data.
DHS then went to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) to find Simson Garfinkel, a NPS computer science professor, to offer a contract to a company that could conduct the research and offer a product.
The U.S. Navy ended up recently awarding the $100,000+ contract to Obscure Technologies, which is a computer forensics company based in San Francisco, California. Obscure Technologies will be expected to create new hardware and software capable of extracting data from video game consoles.
DHS wants to be able to extract data from both new and used games systems bought on the secondary market as well.
“Today’s gaming systems are increasingly being used by criminals as a primary tool in exploiting children and, as a result, are being recovered by U.S. law enforcement organisations during court-authorized searches,” said Garfinkel.
The U.S. government is more concerned with the platforms themselves rather than the games. The current generation of systems like Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3 allow users to communicate with one another via messaging and chat systems. This communication log is what the government is after.
Privacy groups are wondering if this is another way that the government can abuse citizens’ privacy.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Higgins believes that the issue of console privacy and security has been neglected because consoles are dismissed as gaming toys.
“I’ve spoken with privacy people at Microsoft, and they’re aware that it’s something that can be personal and sensitive. If you don’t use Xbox, you might think it’s just a frivolous video game. But a lot of real communication happens between people in this form. Just because it’s a form associated with games doesn’t mean it deserves less privacy protection.”
The DHS doesn’t plan to hack into the game consoles of U.S. citizens because of privacy-related issues only that of overseas gamers which raises questions of which countries will this information be taken from.
“This project requires the purchasing of used video game systems outside of the U.S. in a manner that is likely to result in their containing significant and sensitive information from previous users,” said Garfinkel. “We do not wish to work with data regarding U.S. persons due to Privacy Act considerations. If we find data on U.S. citizens in consoles purchased overseas, we remove the data from our corpus.”
The issue here may not be just one of privacy, but also of alertness. Those who are concerned about eavesdropping on their voice and email communications may be surprised to discover that their video games are no less secure.
It will be interesting to see if some trash talk by a teenage gamer calling people “Nazi fags” will trigger an alarm in a government surveillance computer.
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