• Smith said Microsoft has warned governments about its findings
  • The Microsoft president also warned of 'a very broad-based digital threat'
  • Smith's revelation comes as questions remain about who leaked Pentagon documents on Discord

Microsoft president and vice chairman Brad Smith said the tech giant's digital threat analysis team recently found that the Wagner Group and Russian intelligence are infiltrating gaming communities through apps such as the popular platform Discord.

Smith's revelation comes as questions remain about who leaked Pentagon documents on Discord.

Speaking at the Semafor World Economy Summit on Wednesday, the Microsoft president said that Russian intel and Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group are using gaming communities, in part, "as a place to get information into circulation."

Smith was asked whether there were "security leaks in places and cultures in the gaming world that worry" him.

"For the last several months, our digital threat analysis team has been identifying efforts by the Russians to basically penetrate some of these gaming communities," he said, adding that Microsoft "has been advising governments" about what the team found. Smith said that Russian intelligence and the Wagner Group publish information they want to be circulated on gaming apps or platforms because these are "a good place" to spread misinformation.

The Microsoft vice chairman further warned that countries should be more concerned about "a very broad-based digital threat" such as cyber attacks in Ukraine and financial crimes like ransomware attacks.

Smith's warnings came as the U.S. government kicked off investigations into the leak of classified Pentagon documents. The probe is looking into Discord users as the leaked documents first emerged on the platform that many gamers use to connect with each other.

Media outlets reported that the documents were initially shared among a small group until one user reposted the information. The documents were later shared on a server called 'Minecraft Earth Map."

Open-source intelligence analysts said the leak took place among a small group of gamers on Discord who were arguing about the war in Ukraine, as per The Guardian.

Discord said it was cooperating with authorities in the investigation as questions remain about whether the documents, which included information about the White House's work in Ukraine, were reliable and actual Pentagon papers.

In March last year, some of the world's major gaming key players united to isolate Russia due to the Ukraine war. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft were among the first to announce measures to block Russia. Microsoft, in particular, said it was suspending all new sales of its products – including gaming hardware and games – to Russia.

"Our single most impactful area of work almost certainly is the protection of Ukraine's cybersecurity. We continue to work proactively to help cybersecurity officials in Ukraine defend against Russian attacks," Smith wrote in a blog post at the time.

Late last month, the Russian military was accused of using characters from the game "Atomic Heart" and using them for pro-Russia propaganda.

Russian media outlets posted footage shot outside the store of the Russian military subsidiary "Army of Russia," which featured posters on store windows where "Atomic Heart" characters appear to be wearing clothes made by the brand.

"We want to make it clear that Mundfish company did not give permission for the Russian military brand to use any materials from our game," a representative for the game's developer told Business Insider. The representative added that the company would take "appropriate action" against any party who uses their material illegally.

Earlier this year, Time Magazine released a report that looked into how Russia used various means and channels to spread information regarding the war. Andy Carvin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told the magazine that the Kremlin's focus in terms of propaganda is "essentially generating chaos, causing contagion, causing a loss of morale, or just getting people simply confused" about which side of the story is true.

"Russia has the resources to create customized messages to different audiences all over the globe," Carvin said.

Last year, live streaming service Twitch moved to ban several users on the platform after a research report detailed how pro-Russia propaganda was being used on the platform. Twitch, like Discord, is a popular stage for gamers.

At the time, Twitch said it suspended "several violative channels" that it deemed were "specifically dedicated to spreading misinformation related to the crisis in Ukraine." The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) report said the platform's policy enforcement had "major holes" as misinformation was spreading in the network that is estimated to have 31 million daily active users.

Discord, on the other hand, was estimated to have approximately 154 million monthly active users as of January.

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York, U.S., September 13, 2019.
Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York, U.S., September 13, 2019. Reuters / GARY HE