Best Defense

Terrorists, video games and us

Various news outlets are reporting that the Paris terrorists used PlayStation consoles to communicate prior to the attack.



By Matt McClure
Best Defense cyber correspondent

Various news outlets reported Monday that the Paris terrorists used PlayStation consoles to communicate prior to the attack. (This turned out to be inaccurate.) But if you remember, I worried about something like that in my Future of War essay entry.

In fact, intelligence services have been concerned about video games and virtual worlds for some time. The 9/11 Commission reported terrorists using flight simulators and games “to increase familiarity with aircraft models and functions, and to highlight gaps in cabin security.” In 2008 while working as an Engineer in the Air Force Research Laboratory, I wrote an essay to play in an Air Force Future’s Wargame. It specifically explained how terrorists would use video game technology. From the Executive Summary, “These games provide an anonymous virtual environment for both enemy nations and terrorist organizations, completely unfettered access to a communications, recruiting, financing, planning, and operations.”

The concept did end up playing a large part in the SIGMA meeting of science-fiction writers that same year, “So even as real terrorists are exploiting Second Life and other virtual-world games for recruitment, planning and financing, SIGMA is turning the tables to give the United States a home court advantage in the fight for the future.”

The result was a project called Reynard from IARPA, part of the office of the Director of National Intelligence. The program’s goal was to correlate real-world threats or behaviors with in-game behavior.  In other words, does a particular style of play or avatar choice indicate the player is a terrorist? I was briefly involved with the program, before we (Air Force Research Lab) backed out because of Intelligence Oversight concerns. (A large portion of the program was to monitor online players, which included US Citizens.)  We thought the program ended shortly after because of these issues.  Edward Snowden let us know the idea continued in various forms. Indeed, the U.S. government has been actively pursuing this domain including projects to crack console encryption.

Back in 2008 at the AFRL, I created a team called the Gaming Lab.  Our objective was to apply commercial video game technology to DoD problems—the very same way terrorist were using games; mission rehearsal, communications, planning, etc.   We built notional operations centers with the video game serving as our ‘world’ to train, augment, and improve intelligence tools, training, and analysts.

Two years ago, Tom Ricks asked about the generational divide with technology. The Paris attack shows the imperative of understanding that gap.

Matt McClure is an Engineer and Analyst. He spent a decade as an Officer and Civilian in the Air Force Research Laboratory playing video games and wargaming. He is the author of an upcoming novel about terrorists, video games, and Homeland Security.

Photo credit: tangi bertin/Flickr (cropped)

Update, Nov. 16, 2015: The initial report from Forbes regarding the Paris attackers’ use of PlayStation consoles is inaccurate. The source for the original article was a Nov. 10 statement by Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, saying: “The most difficult communication between these terrorists is PlayStation 4. It’s very, very difficult for our services — not only Belgian services but international services — to decrypt the communication that is done via PlayStation 4.” There is currently no official evidence that the Paris attackers used the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation Network to plan or coordinate the attack.



Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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