US governments probe into consoles
Big Brother is watching. Watching you play computer games. It may sound like an unlikely scenario as you twiddle your thumbs on Modern Warfare 3, but your games console is a highly sought-after piece of kit – and the US government wants to exploit it.
Officials want to develop hardware and software capable of bypassing the security on consoles and unearthing any sensitive information that could be stored on them.
They fear criminals, including terrorists and paedophiles, are using messaging and voice chat on games consoles to communicate. The US navy assigned a £110,000 contract to San Francisco-based tech company Obscure Technologies last month to develop ‘a prototype rig for capturing data’ from popular consoles such as the Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3.
It will purchase second-hand consoles that have originated outside the US and use them to research specific hacking methods.
In the brief from the navy, Obscure has also been asked to ‘survey console chat room technology and identify potential chokepoints where data may be committed to storage’.
In addition to this, the department of homeland security has been asked by police to provide tools that can extract data from consoles that have been seized during raids on suspects.
The US government wants results by next summer and, despite its shadowy brief, has not wrapped a veil of secrecy around the work that is expected to be published in academic journals.
However, online privacy groups have concerns that all communication through games consoles could be potentially up for grabs.
The authorities are aware of this, which is why they are being careful to buy only consoles from outside the US – for now.
But what does all this mean for gamers who may have sold their system on to the second-hand market here in Britain?
Chris Boyd, senior threat researcher at Berkshire-based GFI Software, said the project highlights the need for gamers to be more security conscious around their console.
Mr Boyd added: ‘It’s a valuable reminder for people to take heed of what they are doing with their consoles, the kind of information they’re storing, the kind of communications they have with other people and the kinds of sensitive data they put through these machines.
‘We should be taking care of what we do with our games consoles anyway, especially now there’s such a drive to inject advertising and tracking into our gaming experience.’
Mr Boyd accepts that there are criminals trying to exploit the technology offered by consoles.
‘As far as child predators go, it’s important not to overblow the situation but you do get people on video games consoles, as you do on social networks and everywhere else, who will try to stalk and harass people online, try to find out information about them,’ he said.
The US government suspects terrorists could be using online chat forums through consoles to plan their activities. They could be using war-themed games and the inbuilt online chat functions to communicate their plans instead of using more risky methods such as email and phone calls, a report last month suggested.
But Mr Boyd remains sceptical. ‘Why they would have to log in to say Call Of Duty and do this is slightly baffling. You can start, for example, a chat party on the Xbox from the desk board. You don’t need to be in a game to do this.’
He can foresee a number of obstacles for the US project, particularly once consoles are upgraded in the next few years.
‘They could spend all this time and money coming up with a solution to pull out this data from the current generation of consoles and six months down the line the next generation comes along and it’s completely incompatible with the technology.’
There is another, potentially more embarrassing, outcome. ‘It could be theoretically questionable – the value of the data they’re going to take off these machines,’ said Mr Boyd. ‘They may end up with just a whole bunch of information related to some poor soul’s gaming account and not much else.’
Gamers have been hacking into consoles for years, with modifying or ‘modding’ games using custom built tools popular among certain gamers, Mr Boyd said.
He added: ‘A lot of people don’t really think of their games console as anything other than a games console even though there’s been a huge push in recent years to turn it into a sort of multimedia centre that does everything – you can watch TV, you can play music, you can play games.
‘There’s quite a significant shift in what we’re using these machines for.’
Xbox manufacturer Microsoft said: ‘We are not involved in this initiative from the department of homeland security, nor did we have any advance knowledge of this procurement of Xbox 360 consoles by Obscure Technologies.
‘We can assure Xbox owners we take the privacy and security of their personal data very seriously.’
An enforcement team that works with the authorities if criminal activity is discovered on its Xbox Live service, Microsoft added.
Communication over the internet on services such as its Video Kinect service or voice chat in multi-player games is not stored on the console.
It encouraged Xbox 360 owners to look at its support service for advice on how to delete content.
‘However, sophisticated digital forensic tools may be capable of recovering deleted information,’ the spokesman admitted.