• United States



Uncle Sam wants to hack foreign video consoles and scrape gamers’ data

Mar 29, 20125 mins
Computers and PeripheralsData and Information SecurityMicrosoft

The US Navy is interested in hacking used, foreign video console systems in order to analyze network traffic and gamers' stored data on the hard drives.

For once, Americans are safe in the ongoing hunt for terrorists as a new program has specifically prohibited targeting US gamers. If you live overseas and sold an old gaming system? It may not be good news for you since Uncle Sam has decided you are a new target to be spied upon. The military wants foreign gaming consoles hacked and the user’s data scraped.

The U.S. Navy will pay $177,237.50 to Obscure Technologies to deliver “computer forensic tools for analyzing network traffic and stored data created during the use of video game systems.” Although the company’s lead scientist “has experience in this area” and “previously reverse engineered the Microsoft XBOX,” the new research will be on used gaming console purchased overseas. The project synopsis states, this “project requires the purchasing of used video game systems outside the US in a manner that is likely to result in their containing significant and sensitive information from previous users.”

The Navy noted that hacking foreign gaming consoles will require “specific knowledge of working with the hardware of embedded systems that have significant anti-tampering technology.” According to the March 26 Justification and Approval, “Obscure Technologies has the ability to do cradle-to-grave turnkey servicing of complete hardware systems design.” In fact, the company is the “only US company that appears to offer the purchasing of used computer equipment for access to the contained information as a commercial service.”

Furthermore, there is nothing secretive about this project. Upon completion, the results “will be publicized at conferences and published in academic journals. Open source software resulting from this contract will be made freely available. Other academics will be free to build upon it.”

According to FedBizOpps, it was the military, specifically the Navy, who posted the contract. However, the end product will be used by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology. Although the listing does not state how DHS will utilize the tools created by Obscure Technologies, government agencies often search for suspicious behavior among gamers. Law enforcement uses Xbox and PS3 to hunt for gangs and terrorists who are recruiting and plotting evil. The FBI and other intelligence agencies have a history of hunting for terrorists in World of Warcraft. Even gamers who resell Xbox, Wii or Playstation games are considered potential criminals in DC and can expect to be fingerprinted and photographed.

If you are a gamer in America and you don’t play WOW, you may be starting to breathe a bit easier that intelligence won’t be joining the game to spy on you in the name of national security. Before you completely relax, do you play Call of Duty? According to The Sun, terrorists are using Call of Duty and other “realistic conflict games” to “mask their deadly discussion as harmless web chat.” Apparently “would-be jihadists” prefer FPS (first person shooter) MMORPG games. “Other shoot-’em-up games suspected of being targeted by terrorists are thought to be Medal of Honour and the Halo series.”

The Sun article quotes an unnamed “security expert” as saying, “Those who fight crime and terrorism keep up to date with technological changes.” The post also claims the CIA allegedly warned of the “menace” and “growing threat” as far back as five years ago. That timeline may be about right since Computerworld reported, “Back in 2008, a Data Mining Report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence mentioned the Reynard Project; it was started to profile online gaming behavior so that U.S. intelligence agencies could find “suspicious behavior” and therefore terrorists in WoW and Second Life.”

A 2009 document about the Reynard Project [PDF] suggested “looking for ties between Real Worlds (RWs) and Virtual Worlds (VWs). It encouraged finding out why people select certain VW avatars and what that might reveal about the gamer in real-life. Could the activities or communications of VW avatars reveal indicators about the RW people? According to this IARPA solicitation, the Reynard Program was ‘envisioned to begin in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2009 and end by 2012’.”

Here we are in 2012. I can hardly wait for the findings as it will surely spur yet another “you might be a terrorist” list . . . but this time it might be along the lines of suspicious behavior based upon your gaming avatar.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.