Reporting Error Leads To Speculation That Terrorists Used PS4s To Plan Paris Attacks

Reporting Error Leads To Speculation That Terrorists Used PS4s To Plan Paris Attacks

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


    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.

    Oh get the fuck out of here with this fear-mongering bullshit.

    Do you really not know how [or at least, appreciate] how the internet works?

    All devices connected can send and received data to other devices on the network. The protocol or service used is irrelevant. Plus, given the capabilities of NSA [and other nation's agencies], they identify and monitor traffic regardless of what service it's using. If it is unencrypted traffic, it's fair game. [Arguably even some encrypted traffic too].

    Putting the spotlight on one particular service is just naive, and irresponsible. Why not IRC chat? Or email? Or the voice chat in Pokemon? Or any of the dozens of private pseudo text-messaging companies?

    Anyone with even the basic searching capabilities can work out how to set up their own private XMPP [Jabber] chat server, with TLS encryption on all traffic, PLUS you can enable OTR encryption which provides currently unbreakable encryption between two devices [no public key exchange] as well as perfect forward secrecy.

    But, yeah, lets all start worrying about the PSN.....

      From what I understand, it's easier on PS/XB/PC networks because so much of the chat about the game sounds like what terrorists actually would discuss.

      It's alot harder to track someone planning a bombing if you're playing CS:GO, and everyone is talking about bombs. How do you tell if someone is deciding whether or not to use an AK-47 in the game or in real life?

      Last edited 17/11/15 12:11 pm

        It's a moot point, though.
        It doesn't matter because there's a million ways to communicate online, and many of them provide better secrecy than gaming networks.

        It's like those articles that popped up a few years back about pedophiles using picto-chat to attract children on their DS. The problem is the people and their actions, not the vector.

        It's A Current Affair levels of journalism.

          I disagree - gaming networks allow terrorists to communicate while hiding in plain sight. Case in point: Where else can you discuss the ins and outs of killing enemies with an AK-47 vs an M4A1 without arousing suspicion? Decrypting communication is one issue, but trying to sort actual terrorist chatter from among very similar sounding in-game chatter is a whole other level.

          Yes, singling out the PSN was a bit sloppy, but the wider issue of games as a screen for actual terrorist communication is very real.

            It ultimately doesn't matter, though.
            Focusing on the vector is a distraction from the actual act itself. Why spend significant resources focusing on gaming networks, when instead those resources could be spent on the actual root causes of such acts themselves.

            It's the same argument against the government internet storage/metadata policies. It is significant effort to implement, yet completely trivial to bypass by anyone that actually wants to. Lets say global monitoring of all gaming communications is implemented, it's trivial to simply switch to another method of communication, and you're back to square one again.

            Lets assume that your argument is true, and that gaming networks are a valid target for allocation of resources, and that filtering out terrorist chatter from actual in-game chatter is difficult, where does that leave us then? Banning all in-game communications? Ruling them too dangerous to be worth the risk? What sort of solution is worth the effort to implement?

            The problem being discussed here isn't even the actual problem. Any way to bypass a system of active monitoring by the companies is trivial. And the logical conclusion of any policy enforced on gaming communication is to ban all communication completely.

            By these points, while I can say that there very well may be terrorist communication occurring on these networks, identifying it as any sort of problem is completely redundant and missing the point completely.

            Last edited 17/11/15 2:00 pm

            Yeah. Definitely gaming networks are a problem. For sure. It's not like they can call themselves a gaming clan, register a private team speak server and use a pretty mundane code or anything.

      All this electronic mumbo-jumbo will be our downfall I tells ya!

      Everything after your first sentence is gravy. I'd buy you a drink for that first sentence alone.

      Last edited 17/11/15 10:46 pm

        Haha, cheers. I might have to take you up on that.

    This is the real reason Nintendo removed that letter-sharing app from the 3DS. Planning bombings with game consoles is bad enough, but they could have used the handheld to plan 3D! JUST LIKE REAL LIFE IS 3D!

    Last edited 17/11/15 12:18 pm

    Reminds me of the movie "Four Lions" and the Puffin Party.

      A mosque was bombed a few days ago... a movie that was once satire is now reality

    Seriously spelling out an Attack Plan in Super Mario Maker has got to be the least efficient way to arrange anything in the history of anything.

    Let's assume that at least 1 person in the entire operation is remotely technology literate. Surely he would get everybody on TOR. Or a cheap prepaid phone. Australia is one of the few countries where they require you to register for a prepaid most just hand it over. PS4's aren't cheap, and there are so many easier cheaper and more efficient ways to do this.

    There is material everywhere on how to communicate securely using all sorts of methods that one could layer and automate. Like, for example, hiding a recording of your voice saying a sentence that can only be heard when played in reverse that's inside a pirated song that's encrypted and sent over tor.

    Telling people to stop using technology is a lost cause, fight the fight you can win.

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