A couple of days ago there was a lot of interest in how terrorists may have been using chat features of popular video console platforms (e.g. PS4, XBox One) to secretly communicate and plan their attacks. Several journalists on tight deadlines reached out to me for insight in to threat. Here are some technical snippets on the topic that may be useful for future reference:
- In-game chat systems have been used by cyber-criminals for over a decade to conduct business and organize transfers of stolen data. Because the chat systems within games tend to use proprietary protocols and exist solely within a secure connection to the game vendors server, it is not ordinarily possible to eavesdrop or collectively intercept these communications without some level of legal access to the central server farm. While the game vendors have the ability to inspect the chat traffic, this level of inspection (when conducted – which is rare) tends to focus on inappropriate language and bullying, and that inspection or evidence gathering is almost exclusively limited to text-based communications.
- As games (particularly multi-player first-person shootem-up games) have embraced real-time voice chat protocols, it has become considerably more difficult to inspect traffic and identify inappropriate communications. Most responses to abuse are driven my multiple individuals complaining about another in-game player – rather that dynamic detection of abuse.
- This difficulty in monitoring communications is well known in the criminal community and is conveniently abused. Criminals tend to not use their own personal account details, instead use aliases or, more frequently, stolen user credentials – and may electronically proxy their communications via TOR and other anonymizing proxy services to avoid people working out their physical location. There is a sizable underground market for stolen on-line gaming user credentials. When using stolen credentials, the criminals will often join specific game servers and use pre-arranged times for games (and sub-types of games) to ensure that they will be online with the right group(s) of associates. These game times/details are often discussed in private message boards.
- While US law enforcement has expended efforts to intercept communications and ascertain geographical location information from TOR and proxy services in the past, it is difficult – since the communications themselves are typically encrypted. Intercepting in-game communications are very difficult because of the complex legal and physical server relationships between (lets say for example) Sony (running the PlayStation network), Electronic Arts (running the account management system and some of the gaming server farm), and the game development team (who implemented the communication protocol and runs the in-game service). For law enforcement, getting the appropriate legal interception rights to target an individual (criminal) is complex in this situation and may be thwarted anyway if the criminals choose to use their own encryption tools on top of the game – i.e. the in-game communications are encrypted by the criminals using a third-part non-game tool.
- Console chat typically takes the form of either text or voice-based chat. Text-based chat is much easier to analyze and consequently easier for console operators and law enforcement to identify threats and abuse. In addition, text-based communications are much easier to store or archive – which means that, after an event, it is often possible for law enforcement to obtain the historical communication logs and perform analysis. Voice-based chat is much more difficult to handle and typically will only be inspected in a streaming fashion because the data volumes are so large – making it impractical to store for any extended period of time. There are also more difficulties in searching voice traffic for key words and threats. Video-based chat is even more difficult again to dynamically inspect, monitor, and store.