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US Homeland Security hacking into gaming consoles

The Americas Post - Suddenly on-line game titles like "Modern Warfare" take on a whole new meaning

Forensic experts report that pedophiles are increasingly using gaming systems to prey upon children, while terrorists are now utilizing them for online communication. With this in mind, on April 5 the United States Naval Supply Systems Command contracted a San Francisco company called Obscure Technologies for the research and development of “hardware and software tools that can be used for extracting data from video game systems.”

In response to the growing practice of owners “jailbreaking” consoles in order to play pirated games, gaming companies have fought back with hard-to-break encryptions. As a result, data extraction is a highly complex process which the Department of Homeland Security believes can only be achieved by Obscure Technologies. For the small computer diagnostics and forensics company, with annual sales below $500,000 and less than five employees, the contract award of $177,235.50 is not insignificant.

“Analysis of the game systems requires specific knowledge of working with the hardware of embedded systems that have significant anti-tampering technology. Obscure Technologies has substantial experience in working with such systems. Obscure Technologies has the ability to do cradle-to-grave turnkey servicing of complete hardware systems design,” the contract states.  But the government’s main attraction to this company is most likely its lead engineer’s ability to reverse engineer Microsoft’s Xbox.

According to Foreign Policy, which first broke the story, law enforcement agencies came to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate requesting a system that can extract data from game consoles. The DHS then delegated responsibility for leading the research and executing the contract to the Naval Postgraduate School.

With the multi-function nature of modern consoles, including access to social networking profiles, the Internet and peer-to-peer messaging, there’s plenty of interest to law enforcement, but it’s difficult to access. Under the impression that game console data is impervious to being hacked and therefore safe from authorities, pedophiles have in fact been using consoles as a haven for exploitation. In 2008, the FBI announced that Xbox Live was being used by pedophiles for luring and communicating with children at an alarming rate.

Aware of related privacy issues, the contract explicitly states that Obscure Technologies will only crack consoles purchased outside the United States for the duration of the research. As for the data to be extracted from the overseas consoles, the DHS plans on making their research and data publicly available at conferences and academic journals, but under the “constraints of the Common Rule (CFR 46) governing the use of human subject data.” In other words, any identifiable information pertaining to the owner of the consoles will be scrubbed.