When Edward Snowden leaked his massive trove of stolen NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, one of the startling revelations was that the NSA had even decided to snoop into gaming networks such as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. These are perceived as the domain of children, many thought, and thus shame on the NSA for not even leaving kids out of all this.
But according to Belgian officials, who confiscated a console in Brussels over the weekend which they believe to have been involved in the attacks on Paris, the NSA’s program wasn’t so far off the mark. As it turns out, the very proprietary nature of the PSN makes it difficult for spies to eavesdrop in on, even if they access raw traffic. Then there is the nature of the communications in the game, which would require extensive new monitoring capabilities to fully cover. For instance, a set of movements by a game character in Call of Duty might signal a message to another player, based on training the pair had received during Jihadi Camp.
The federal home affairs minister of Belgium, Jan Jambon, told the press:
PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is an encrypted communications platform similar to Telegram and others, founded by Jan Koum, who grew up in Soviet Russia and is unapologetic for encrypting communications. But
what Jambon is really referring to is not the nature of the encryption, but the variety of communications that can be done on a PlayStation 4 versus an application in an open source system. The task of monitoring communications in online gaming of the subversive nature that authorities would be interested in is mind-bogglingly complex. Even with the help of Sony, authorities would have to know where to begin, that is, which users to look into, and also operate under the assumption that the accounts are constantly switched, traded, hacked, and so forth.
While Belgian police are relatively certain that the suspects now in custody are in fact the masterminds behind Friday’s attacks on Bataclan Theatre, evidence gleaned from the PlayStation Network itself will be hard to ascertain and prove. Instead, prosecutors will have to rely on hard evidence.
While the NSA has been looking into the possible attack vector of gaming networks for quite some time, it seems that this is the first attack which may have actually been orchestrated by such. In the end, small, dedicated groups of extremists will find a way to communicate their operational commands and orchestrate their deeds. The best known effective method of slowing the rising tide of extremism is effective anti-propaganda. Jan Jambon said as much last week during a debate about the weakness of Belgian security as regards potential terrorist harboring:
The thing that keeps me awake at night is the guy behind his computer, looking for messages from IS and other hate preachers.
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