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Sony responds to claim PS4 used for terrorist communications

As UK media suggest PS4 was used to plot Paris attacks.

Sony has responded to comments from Belgium's deputy prime minister and minister of Security and Home Affairs, who claimed communication over PlayStation 4 is more difficult to monitor than WhatsApp.

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Belgium's Deputy prime minister and minister of Security and Home Affairs, Jan Jambon.

As part of a debate organised by Politico, held three days before Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, Jan Jambon said international security services struggle to decrypt communication via PlayStation 4.

"The thing that keeps me awake at night is the guy behind his computer, looking for messages from IS and other hate preachers," he said, as reported by The Bulletin.

"PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp."

Politico, which hosted the debate, published a video which reveals further comments from Jambon on PS4 in an article headlined, "Why terrorists love PS4".

"The most difficult communication between these terrorists is via PlayStation 4," he said.

"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."

Jambon mentioned PS4 as part of a discussion about Belgian counterrorism and the difficulty it faced countering the skilled online recruitment of ISIL.

Responding to Jambon's comments, Sony admitted the PS4 could be "abused", but stressed the communication features of the console were in common with all modern connected devices.

A Sony spokesperson issued Eurogamer the following statement:

  • PlayStation 4 allows for communication amongst friends and fellow gamers and, in common with all modern connected devices, this has the potential to be abused. However, we take our responsibilities to protect our users extremely seriously and we urge our users and partners to report activities that may be offensive, suspicious or illegal. When we identify or are notified of such conduct, we are committed to taking appropriate actions in conjunction with the appropriate authorities and will continue to do so.

Despite Jambon's comments coming before last week's terrorist attacks in Paris, the UK media has linked the two events, carrying headlines that suggest those involved used the PS4 to communicate with each other.

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Here's The Daily Mail's headline:

  • Britain on terror alert: Special forces on the streets of London as experts warn ISIS is using the PlayStation 4 network to recruit and plan attacks because it's 'more secure than WhatsApp'

The Mirror:

  • Paris attacks: ISIS terrorists may have used PlayStation 4s to plot atrocities

The Telegraph:

  • Paris attacks: Terrorists could have used PlayStation4 to plot

The Express goes one step further, claiming a PS4 was in fact used to plan the Paris attacks.

  • ISIS terrorists used Sony Playstation 4 to plot Paris massacre
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The Express' headline.

There are a number of issues with the way the UK media has reported the story that cast doubt on PlayStation's role in the terrorist attacks in Paris, specifically.

The newspapers reference an article on International Business Times, published on 14th November, which claims authorities in Brussels conducted searches for those responsible for the Paris attacks and discovered evidence that included at least one PS4 console.

The papers are using this report to strengthen the angle that the PS4 may have been used to plot the attacks. However, the claim a PS4 was found as part of a raid remains unconfirmed at present.

The IBT report also makes a number of eyebrow-raising claims about video games and their potential as a communication tool for terrorists.

  • PlayStation's IP-based voice systems are difficult for investigators to monitor compared to traditional forms of communication such as mobile phones and computers. And terrorists could send messages to each other within PlayStation games without speaking or typing a word.
  • A member of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, could convey an attack plan in Super Mario Maker's coins and share it privately with another PS4 user. A player in Call Of Duty could shoot at a wall and write a disappearing message in bullets to another player, Forbes reported.
  • While it remains unclear whether the militants from Friday's attacks actually used PS4, the popular gaming console has proven to be an effective avenue of covert communication for both the good guys and bad guys.

The Forbes report in question is where mention of Super Mario Maker and Call of Duty in relation to the Paris attacks originated. Here's the relevant section:

  • The scary part of all this is that there are probably still a number of ways that terrorists could send messages to each other without speaking a word, if they really wanted to. An ISIS agent could spell out an attack plan in Super Mario Maker's coins and share it privately with a friend, or two Call of Duty players could write messages to each other on a wall in a disappearing spray of bullets.
  • It may sound ridiculous, but there are many in-game ways of non-verbal communication that would almost be impossible to track. To do so would require an FBI or NSA agent somehow tapping all the activity on an entire console, not just voice and text chat, and that should not even be technically possible at this point.

None of the reports appear to have asked Sony for comment, nor pointed out the likelihood that a PS4, a console that has sold just shy of 30m units, would be found at a home in Belgium occupied by a person in their twenties.

The reports rekindle memories of a story from two years ago, based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that showed intelligence agencies in the UK and the United States were sneaking onto "World of Warcraft" and listening in to private discussions on Xbox Live chat to snoop on "persons of interest".

Games "are an opportunity!", one analyst wrote, and offer an alternative "target-rich communications network" to the more traditionally-monitored forms of communication. Games were somewhere targets could still "hide in plain sight".

At the time a spokesperson told Eurogamer the company had not detected any spying through Xbox Live - and insisted if it did occur it wasn't done with Microsoft's blessing.

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