The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Navy have launched a new research initiative that will find new ways to let the government gain access to information stored on home console systems like the Xbox 360 and PS3.
The whole thing started in 2008 with "Gaming Systems Monitoring and Analysis Project," which sought to find ways for law enforcement – concerned about pedophiles using game consoles to talk to children – to observe the data on game consoles. The project tapped DHS' Science and Technology Directorate for help. DHS in turn went to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and Simson Garfinkel, an NPS computer science professor.
They offered a contract to a company that could conduct the research and ultimately produce a product that would serve their needs. Recently the U.S. Navy awarded a $177,237 contract to Obscure Technologies, a San Francisco-based computer forensics company. Obscure Technologies will create new hardware and software that can extract the data law enforcement wants from both new and used game consoles. DHS claims their goal is to find pedophiles and terrorists.
"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," said Garfinkel.
Naturally privacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation think these kinds of projects are fundamentally wrong and the technology being created is just another way that the government can abuse citizens' privacy and constitutional rights.
"You wouldn't intentionally store sensitive data on a console," said Parker Higgins, a spokesman for the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), an online privacy group. "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. 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."
DHS says that it doesn't plan to hack into U.S.-based game consoles, oddly enough. They say that there are privacy laws in place that prevent them from doing that. "This project requires the purchasing of used video game systems outside of the U.S. in a manner that is likely to result in their containing significant and sensitive information from previous users," said Garfinkel. "We do not wish to work with data regarding U.S. persons due to Privacy Act considerations. If we find data on U.S. citizens in consoles purchased overseas, we remove the data from our corpus."
While it sounds like DHS is supporting this project mainly to fight terrorism and to track terrorists in other countries, you don't have to be paranoid to be concerned that such technology could easily be used against U.S. citizens in the name of "homeland security." This technology would also – we assume – make it easier for law enforcement to unlock the data on a console without the need of the owner's cooperation.