Last week, reports that British surveillance agency GCHQ considered using the Xbox 360 Kinect camera to spy on users between 2008-2010 surfaced via leaked documents revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Though the GCHQ, with the help of the NSA, ultimately didn’t use Microsoft’s device to unknowingly observe millions of users via an initiative entitled Optic Nerve, Xbox users are left wondering if they can trust the multimedia giant – especially since the next-gen Xbox One camera is always watching its users. Microsoft spoke to Eurogamer on Feb. 28 regarding the unnerving allegations.
“Microsoft has never heard of this program," the spokesperson said. "However, we're concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data. That's why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms."
Last December, Microsoft denied similar allegations that Xbox Live Chat had been infiltrated by US and UK spies. "We're not aware of any surveillance activity," the spokesperson promised. "If it has occurred as reported, it certainly wasn't done with our consent."
This wouldn’t be the first time the gaming medium has been used to spy on unsuspecting players. Last December, Snowden disclosed documents to the Guardian that gave a detailed history of the agency's surveillance on gaming activities. The NSA documents stated that British and American intelligence organizations forcibly spied on online activity through Xbox Live, the virtual world “Second Life” and the popular MMO “World of Warcraft” since 2006.
The leaked documents admitted that the agencies not only infiltrated specific online games, but actually created individual mobile games specifically for the purpose of gathering data about players. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command built mobile games that were used as “vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.” The article also gave a history of the seven years that multiple U.S. and international government agencies surveyed gamers’ activities. The agencies saw online gaming as a convenient way for criminals and terrorists to communicate with one another in a private manner. They also felt that an online forum could be a “target-rich communication network.”
The NSA also spied on Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter activity with the help of intelligence system PRISM, a software program used to examine data like emails, videos and online chats. Industry experts predicted the tech mega giants could lose billions of dollars over the next several years if clients and consumers decide to employ alternative services that don’t violate their privacy. Many Internet companies alerted Congress of this possibility, calling for President Obama to take another look at the government's surveillance activities.
In January, more documents revealed the NSA and GCHQ were also tapping well-known smartphone apps and games like Rovio’s “Angry Birds” to peer into the vast collection of personal data compiled by the software from its users. Data includes personal details such as age, location, gender and even sexual preferences, reported the New York Times. Various reports detailed attempts to amass large amounts of personal information from users via cell phone carriers and smartphones by utilizing “leaky” apps.
“When a smartphone user opens 'Angry Birds,' the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spies could be lurking in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information,” the New York Times reported on Jan. 27. “The N.S.A. and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden.”