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Spy Games

The Department of Homeland Security is trying to hack into your Xbox. Should gamers be worried?

Recent years have brought reports of the U.S. government eavesdropping on phone conversations, e-mails, even tweets -- all in the name of fighting terrorism. But surely your Xbox must be safe from the prying eyes of Big Brother?

Not for long. You might not immediately think that slaying dragons or driving like a maniac through virtual streets is all that interesting to intelligence agents, but the U.S. government believes there might be law enforcement gold on your Xbox. Government researchers say that hacking into consoles will allow police to catch pedophiles and terrorists. Meanwhile, privacy advocates worry that gamers may leave sensitive data -- and not just credit card information -- on their Nintendos without knowing it.

At the cutting edge of this development is Obscure Technologies, a small San Francisco-based company that performs computer forensics and which has just been awarded a $177,237 sole-source research contract to develop "hardware and software tools that can be used for extracting data from video game systems," and "a collection of data (disk images; flash memory dumps; configuration settings) extracted from new video game systems and used game systems purchased on the secondary market," according to the contract award from the U.S. Navy. (Law enforcement agencies contacted the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate for help on a tool to examine gaming console data. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then asked the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) to execute the contract and spearhead the research because of the expertise of Simson Garfinkel, a computer science professor at the NPS in Monterrey, Calif. -- hence the U.S. Navy contract.)

The project, called the "Gaming Systems Monitoring and Analysis Project," originated in 2008, when law enforcement authorities were concerned about pedophiles using video game consoles to find victims. "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 organizations during court-authorized searches," says Garfinkel, a computer forensics expert. Indeed, the FBI warns that pedophiles often use online gaming forums as their hunting grounds. However, "there is a suspicion" that terrorists are also using online games to communicate, says John Verrico, spokesman for DHS's Science and Technology Directorate. While homeland security is the primary DHS mission, it also supports domestic law enforcement and first responders, Verrico says.

The ultimate goal is to "improve the current state-of-the-art of computer forensics by developing new tools for extracting information from popular game systems, and by building a corpus of data from second-hand game system that can be used to further the development of computer forensic tools," Garfinkel said in an email to Foreign Policy. Though the research is being overseen by NPS, the contract award states that the tools developed by Obscure will be delivered to DHS.

Monitoring gaming consoles is harder than you might think. Consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii encrypt their devices to prevent piracy and tampering. Indeed, the contract states that "analysis of the game systems requires specific knowledge of working with the hardware of embedded systems that have significant anti-tampering technology." But this is more than hacking; the government wants tools that can apply computer forensics, which look for legally admissible evidence, to consoles.

While there have been some attempts to use computer forensics on consoles, researchers say this is relatively new ground. The DHS project is "exploratory research and development," said Obscure Technologies president Greg May. "It will be interesting to see, because it's new to us as well. A lot of this stuff hasn't been done. We're not sure how complicated it is."

Of course, what the government is interested in is not the game itself, but the platform -- and the way you use it. Video game consoles have evolved beyond simple entertainment machines into powerful all-purpose devices that are used to watch movies,  post on Facebook, or -- more important to an FBI or CIA agent -- chat with other players. "You wouldn't intentionally store sensitive data on a console," says Parker Higgins, a spokesman for the online privacy group, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF). "But I can think of things like connection logs and conversation logs that are incidentally stored data. And it's even more alarming because users might not know that the data is created."

"These consoles are being used as general purpose computers," Higgins adds. "And they're used for all kinds of communications. The Xbox has a very active online community where people communicate. It stands to reason that you could get sensitive and private information stored on the console."

Thing about it: Your Nintendo Wii might tell government investigators when you were connected to the Internet, who you were talking to, what you were saying, and what you were playing. "Taken in context, it could end up revealing more than you expect," Higgins warns. There have already been hacks that could allow for spying on users of the Xbox Kinect, a video-enabled add-on that reads body movement for interactive gaming.

DHS is aware of the domestic privacy issues, which is why it says it intends to target consoles from overseas. "This project requires the purchasing of used video game systems outside the U.S. in a manner that is likely to result in their containing significant and sensitive information from previous users," states the contract. Why go abroad? "We do not wish to work with data regarding U.S. persons due to Privacy Act considerations," says Garfinkel. "If we find data on U.S. citizens in consoles purchased overseas, we remove the data from our corpus."

So will console game manufacturers cooperate with government efforts to break into their devices or will they construct bigger and better firewalls? Neither Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo nor the Entertainment Software Association responded to questions from FP, but 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."

Gamers may not have much choice in the matter. Unlike regular computers, whose users can install security software, gamers can't just install an anti-virus program like McAfee or spyware monitoring software. And jailbreaking (modifying) a console runs afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bars circumvention of copyright protection technology. The EFF is lobbying the U.S. Copyright Office for an exemption that would allow users to add essential software such as security programs to their game consoles, smartphones, and tablets.

With pedophiles using consoles as a means to lure victims, or terrorists possibly using them to communicate, it was probably inevitable that video game consoles would be targeted by law enforcement. Indeed, in an era when the National Security Agency can conduct warrantless electronic searches of your email, it is naive to assume that video games would be exempt. There is a powerful case to be made for giving the government the technical means to collect evidence from consoles.

There is also good reason to worry. Numerous cases of illegal wiretaps, as well as surveillance of various political and ethnic groups for dubious reasons, are grounds for suspicion. 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. And who knows whether  some violent trash talk by a teenage video gamer will trigger an alarm in a government surveillance computer?

The sad truth is: When it comes to crime and punishment, even video games aren't games anymore.

FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Why I'm Leaving Human Rights Watch

A once-passionate defender of liberty calls it a day.

Today is my last day at Human Rights Watch. After a decade of helping the organization advance its goals -- an end to genocide, torture, and repression, and respect for the dignity of all men and women -- I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people, and its identity. And I can honestly say that if the struggle for human rights and human liberty is taken to its logical conclusion, it will destroy everything that gives meaning and richness to our lives.

These thoughts began to crystallize in my mind last year, when I traveled to eastern Libya, after the start of the revolution that would end the dictatorship of Muammar al-Qaddafi. It had been years since I had seen so many people so happy, so selfless, so hopeful, so intellectually curious, and so eager to serve their country. Volunteers cleaned up the streets, directed traffic, took care of the sick, and performed countless other tasks without pay. Young Libyans who had once seemed apathetic were debating politics in public squares and starting newspapers and NGOs. Under normal circumstances, Libyans and the foreigners who worked among them might have remained separated by barriers of culture and faith; but now, under fire, sharing in the exhilaration of the cause that brought them together, I saw them making friendships that will last a lifetime.

And then it came to me: None of this joyful liberation would have been possible had Qaddafi not given his people something to be liberated from. Had he not stolen their freedom, they would not be cherishing it. Had he not shown them the worst of what people are capable of, they would not be showing us the best. Yet if human rights groups like mine had their way, there never would have been a dictator like Qaddafi! And what would happen if Libya's idealistic revolutionaries won? Soon enough, they'd go back to their day jobs and get bored with their lives.

Let's face it: much of what we truly value in life is rooted in our experience of repression and conflict. Consider great literature and film. Would we remember War and Peace if it had just been Peace, or been moved by All Quiet on the Home Front? Would we care about Winston Smith without Big Brother, Harry Potter's life without Voldemort, or Frodo's journey without Sauron? With no guillotine, A Tale of Two Cities would have been a travel guide. With no revolution, Dr. Zhivago would have been a talk show. With no Nazis, Schindler would have had a shopping list. Yet if human rights activists succeed -- not to mention people trying to end poverty and war -- that's the kind of inspiration our future storytellers will have to draw from.

Perhaps we could do without tragedy in art -- but what about comedy? Is it a coincidence that so many of the best American humorists have been Jewish and African-American? We learn to laugh from the cultures that suffered most -- from the Russians, Poles, and Irish -- not from Sweden or France (the French go for Jerry Lewis - enough said). Amnesty International just raised a lot of money by staging a "Secret Policeman's Ball," featuring a Burmese comedian (who spent 11 years in prison for making fun of his government) as well as other famous entertainers -- none of whom apparently knew that Amnesty International is trying to kill comedy. If groups like Amnesty got what they wanted, the supply of jokes in our lives would depend on comedians who never experienced adversity.

What of the spirit of service to others that we imbue in our children? Young people who return from the Peace Corps, work in refugee camps, or teach in underserved communities, often say that the experience was the most meaningful of their lives. Yet if all the people of the world secured their right to food and shelter and education, if they were never driven from their homes by heartless governments and rebel groups, who would be left for our children to serve?

And how about friendship? Isn't the truest fellowship between human beings that which is forged in shared struggle, against odds, for causes larger than ourselves? Isn't it then that we feel most alive and connected to the people in our lives? Remember the words Shakespeare gave to King Henry as he exhorted his troops before Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition." If the human rights groups got the world of their dreams, there would be no reasons left for people to come together to fight for justice and truth. Bands of brothers would give way to flocks of Facebook friends. And Facebook really would be just for posting videos of kittens, rather than organizing revolutions.

Now, you probably think you have spotted the flaw in my argument. Since we will never actually attain total freedom from tyranny and injustice, we need not worry about losing all sense of purpose from our lives. Not so fast. Though few human rights advocates would admit this, we may be winning. With the fall of communism, and now the new democracies of the Arab Spring, the portion of people living in, or on the verge of achieving, liberty keeps rising.

And look what we've done to American foreign policy! Barack Obama was supposed to be a Kissingerian realist. But he's already launched one war in the Middle East solely to protect people from atrocities, and between Libya, Egypt, Yemen, the Ivory Coast, and hopefully Syria, he's been helping to remove dictators at a rate of more than one a year. Sure, people at the State Department can still get away with saying things like: "We share your concerns about the terrible human rights abuses in Fredonia. But our influence is limited, and we feel we can engage most constructively through quiet diplomacy while balancing our values against the range of interests we share with the GOF." But these days, such arguments work only, like, three-quarters of the time.  

Yet my now-former colleagues at Human Rights Watch seem utterly oblivious to the implications of what they are doing. I have attended dozens of staff meetings in the last year in which not one single minute is spent reflecting on how it is the pursuit of human rights that makes life worth living, not its attainment. It's purely about how we can get this political prisoner out of jail today, or get that abusive government condemned tomorrow. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that we gave no thought at all to what the world would be like if we actually succeeded, god forbid.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. As for myself, I can no longer be part of an organization that is advancing the day when it will be impossible to live life to the fullest. And so, I must dedicate the rest of my years to delaying that calamity. Tomorrow, I will send my resume to the firms of Patton Boggs, Qorvis, and White & Case, which have lobbied for dictatorships such as Qaddafi's Libya, Mubarak's Egypt, Bahrain, and Equatorial Guinea. Having worked to bring effective pressure against their clients in the past, I believe I can help them to counter that pressure. And if they won't have me, well, there's always Goldman Sachs.

[Ed.: April Fools!]

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