Last Friday (Saturday morning in Australia), Islamic State terrorists attacked several locations in Paris, France, killing more than 120 people and injuring hundreds more. Over the weekend, as more information emerged, reporters and analysts began to speculate that the terrorists used an unlikely tool for coordination: the PlayStation 4. As it turns out, that was all based on a reporting mistake.
Anyone can log into a PS4 and use Sony's online service, PlayStation Network, to communicate by text or voice with others on the platform. The service is both easy to use and difficult to track, which would presumably make it perfect for people who want to plan criminal activity. There's been no proof, however, that ISIS used PS4s to plot out what happened last week, despite the wave of media reports this weekend.
So why have so many people linked the PS4 to last week's attacks? The speculation appears to have started with a rather silly Forbes article titled "How Paris ISIS Terrorists May Have Used PlayStation 4 To Discuss And Plan Attacks." The article, which has over 475,000 pageviews and theorizes that a terrorist could also "spell out an attack plan in Super Mario Maker's coins and share it privately with a friend," reports that a Belgian official drew links between the PlayStation and the Paris attacks.
Forbes originally wrote:
The hunt for those responsible (eight terrorists were killed Saturday night, but accomplices may still be at large) led to a number of raids in nearby Brussels. Evidence reportedly turned up included at least one PlayStation 4 console.
Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan Jambon said outright that the PS4 is used by ISIS agents to communicate, and was selected due to the fact that it's notoriously hard to monitor. "PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp," he said.
What Forbes missed was that Jambon actually made those comments on November 10, three days before the Paris attack. Jambon was speaking in the broader context of Belgium's security weaknesses, not drawing a connection between the PS4 and last week's terrorism.
And as for the PlayStation 4 that Forbes says was found in the raids? Turns out that was an error, which they have since edited out.
"This was actually a mistake that I've had to edit and correct," writer Paul Tassi told me this afternoon. "I misread the minister's statement, because even though he was specifically saying that PS4 was being used by ISIS to communicate, there is no public list of evidence list of what was found in the specific recent raids. I've edited the post to reflect that, and it was more meant to be about discussing why or how groups like ISIS can use consoles. It's my fault, as I misinterpreted his statement."
The timing of Jambon's statement — and some misleading reporting — has led to a wave of unfounded speculation that's blown up all across national media, from CNN to Fox News. (Just today we were contacted by MTV News for comment on the story.)
All that said, there's plenty of evidence that terrorists have been taking advantage of online video game services. The Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 revealed that the NSA kept tabs on games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. In May, an Austrian teenager with ties to ISIS was arrested for allegedly using his PlayStation to store bomb plans. And of course, Jambon's comments can't be dismissed, even if they're not directly connected to last week's terrorism.
When we asked Sony for comment on all this, they sent over a mundane statement:
PlayStation 4 allows for communication amongst friends and fellow gamers, in common with all modern connected devices. 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.
Of course, whether or not the Paris attackers used PlayStation 4s to coordinate, the possibility will always be there. Short of strictly monitoring every bit of communication between the PlayStation Network's approximately 65 million active monthly users, there isn't much Sony can do to prevent terrorists from using their service to coordinate attacks. It's a chilling thought.
Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP