I n a recent discussion about the number of citizens choosing to join ISIS, Belgium's Federal Minister of Home Affairs Jan Jambon explained that there were a number of security gaps plaguing the government.
One of the most sensational blindspots that's being widely reported involves the Playstation 4.
“The most difficult communication between these terrorists is via PlayStation 4,” Jambon said at the WHAT WORKS Brussels talk hosted by Politico. “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.”
Three days after Jambon's talk, an ISIS-orchestrated attack on Paris left at least 120 people dead and over 350 injured—nearly 100 of whom were in critical condition.
There was no indication that this particular attack was planned out or coordinated using the PS4 or any other gaming console, but in the days following the event, Jambon's words became the subject of a well-meaning, but intensely erroneous media narrative.
Over the weekend, Forbes reported that investigations into the Paris attack had led officials to "a number of raids in nearby Brussels" that ultimately turned up a Playstation 4.
That information, Forbes later said, was incorrect. Not only was there no confirmation that a PS4 had been confiscated, but in fact no description of any of the evidence found as a result of the Belgian raids had been public.
But by then, the damage had been done.
In the days following that initial report, stories describing how terrorists could use Playstation's voice chat and PSN features to communicate covertly began popping up. Technically speaking, this is possible: terrorists looking to plan an attack could link up with one another while playing a shared game of Call of Duty and discuss plans, but there's no evidence that happened in this particular instance.
Unsurprisingly, the video game fear-mongering wasn't limited to Sony products. The Independent added that other platforms and games like Nintendo's Super Mario Maker could be used to hide messages in plain sight that would be nearly impossible to monitor.
In a statement to Kotaku about the allegations the service was being used to coordinate terrorist plots, Sony insisted that it took its "responsibilities to protect [its] users extremely seriously."
"PlayStation 4 allows for communication amongst friends and fellow gamers, in common with all modern connected devices," Sony said. "When we identify or are notified of such conduct, we are committed to taking appropriate actions in conjunction with the appropriate authorities."
There are a number of things that can be taken away from Sony's statement. Like all of the major gaming companies, Sony does, in fact, have protocols in place to deal with inappropriate behavior when properly flagged for attention.
In theory, this means that the company probably could access a user's custom maps and look through them for information about illegal activity. When you consider that the Playstation Network has about 65 million monthly active users, however, it's difficult to imagine a world where Sony had the time or resources for surveillance on that scale.
In the government's opinion, online gaming communities are worth paying attention to. In 2013, Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents detailed how dozens of operatives were embedded in various corners of Xbox Live that were described as a "target-rich communications network."
Ultimately, any headlines suggesting that ISIS is buying up gaming consoles to strategize away from the prying eyes of the government have to be read with caution. The virtual worlds that we game in, like the real world, are expansive and impossible to monitor in their entirety. Are there criminals lurking out there in cyberspace? Of course, but that doesn't mean online gaming is the next big threat we should fear.