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"Sony PS4 can be used by terrorists" is a great headline. Except it isn't true

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 9:32 IST

Even before the recent Paris attacks, Belgium's Deputy PM Jan Jambon mentioned an unlikely new threat to world peace - the PlayStation 4 (PS 4) gaming console.

It's reminiscent of a scene from the dark comedy Four Lions. In it, a bumbling group of Brit jihadis use an online children's game called Puffin Party to communicate with each other. It seems like a laughably inept plan, but with terrorists getting increasingly more innovative, communication methods like those in the movie may be an actual threat.

That's some bad business for the PS4

Jan Jambon on why terrorists love Playstation 4 from POLITICO Europe on Vimeo.

With 30 million PlayStations already sold, the threat, if true, could be a serious one.

But, Jambon's statements, made at a debate hosted by Politico, should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. Well, at least the PS4 bit.

Even in the video Jambon comes across as a 55-year-old politician trying to be cool at a party. His use of Sony PS4 is probably synecdochical, the way 'Coke' refers to any type of cola or 'Dyson' is generically used for a vacuum cleaner.

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It isn't just a dig at Jambon, Sony even released a statement saying that the "PS4 allows for communication... in common with all modern connected devices". Anyone who has used a modern gaming console can attest to the fact that the PS4, while entertaining as heck, is not some modern day Enigma machine. Or no more than any other console anyway.

Most modern devices use systems where data is encrypted at its source and only decrypted at the receiver's end. It's an encryption method common to most modern messaging apps and gaming consoles. While this obviously does open up the possibility of game consoles being used for nefarious purposes, something even Sony acknowledged in its statement, consoles are a new but not especial challenge to intelligence agencies.

So why the PS4?

Thanks to the timing of Jambon's statement, people were quick to link the device to the Paris attacks. Forbes even specifically claimed that the attackers used the console to communicate but these claims have since been proven untrue.

Not to say there's no precedence of intelligence agencies taking cognisance of the potential threat posed by gaming consoles.

Clickbait Alert: it made a great headline, but terrorists aren't using Playstations to communicate

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that British and American intelligence agencies were monitoring Xbox Live communications as early as 2008. The popular massive multiplayer online role playing game World of Warcraft was another target, as was Second Life. The objective was to identify potential targets and terror networks through in-game communication.

Even here, though, documents reveal no terror plots foiled through the efforts. More crucially, the documents offered no substantiation to the belief that terrorists were using games to communicate.

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The likely reason for the PS4's 'console of choice' status with terrorists probably originates out of Austria. A 14-year-old Turkish national was arrested in Austria earlier this year after downloading bomb-making plans onto his console. The teenager also made contact with ISIS-supporting militants, though reports are unclear if this was also through the console as well.

The device he was using? The PS4, naturally.

So there is a threat from consoles?

Yes... and no. While gaming consoles let you communicate both through audio and text messages, there is scope for more creative communications as an International Business Times report speculated: "Terrorists could send messages to each other within PS games without speaking or typing a word. A member of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, could convey an attack plan in Super Mario Maker's coins and share it privately with another PS4 user. A player in Call Of Duty could shoot at a wall and write a disappearing message in bullets to another player, Forbes reported." These claims, while possible, are fairly farfetched, with absolutely no documentation to back them up.

The real, serious problem? Encrypted communication.

The problem with encryption

It's not criminals alone who're drawn to encryption - in a world where privacy is increasingly becoming a niche commodity, consumers are drawn to apps that protect one's privacy.

The result is that tech companies have implemented end-to-end-encryption that protects the contents of a message, even if their metadata is not.

Intelligence agencies have long been pressing tech companies to provide them 'backdoor access' to these encrypted communications. However, tech companies haven't relented, forcing some governments to take more drastic steps.

The popular Russian messaging app Telegram has already been banned in China, with the secure communication it provided being seen as an aid to anti-national elements. There was a similar demand in Russia following evidence that some terrorists were using it as a tool to spread propaganda. Reacting to these moves the app's creator Pavel Durov mocked this approach with a post on his Vkontakte page: "I propose banning words. There's evidence [to suggest] that they're being used by terrorists to communicate."

The joke is well made. Terrorists have and will always find a means to communicate. It's up to intelligence agencies to keep pace without the need for illegal access. Apps and devices are being scapegoated thanks to intelligence not being able to keep pace.

And the whole "Terrorists love PS4" circus? Let it never be said that facts ever came in the way of a good headline. Journalism, thy holy grail today is clickbait.

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First published: 20 November 2015, 12:16 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.