Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?

Pixelated unrecognizable hooded cyber criminal

Both British and American agencies have identified games and virtual environments, which they term “GVEs,” as havens for illegal activity. Released documents show that, because of fears that “criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks,” intelligence operatives have entered the video game terrain as virtual spies. While there, the spies create “make-believe characters to snoop,” “recruit informers,” and collect “data and contents of communications between players,” because features common to video games, such as “fake identities,” and “voice and text chats” provide an ideal place for criminal organizations to operate. A 2008 document released by the National Security Agency (NSA) warned that, although “[o]nline games might seem innocuous . . . they ha[ve] the potential to be a ‘target-rich communication network’ allowing intelligence suspects ‘a way to hide in plain sight.’”

Furthermore, according to the NSA, “Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) are ideal locations” for criminals “because of the enormous scale on which they are played,” featuring thousands of subscribers simultaneously using various servers hosted in a wide array of places, including on gamers’ own dedicated servers. Additionally, GVEs may often be accessed “via mobile devices connected wirelessly,” such as phones, handhelds, or laptops. Through connections to online gaming environments, these types of devices allow for an additional place where users can interact, connect, or share. These sites can be “advertised” in online games and password-protected so that they function essentially as private meeting places for criminal organizations.

Consequently, the online gaming landscape poses a unique challenge for law enforcement because it not only involves a new realm wherein criminal organizations thrive, but it also represents communications that more closely involve innocent parties and are more technically difficult to intercept. As a result, law enforcement around the world will need to make difficult decisions regarding surveillance and regulation of these types of communications.

The technical difficulties posed by in-game communications raise an especially difficult dilemma for law enforcement because they present issues in an area skirting the edge of law enforcement’s technological ability. Often times, even if law enforcement agencies have the legal authority to conduct surveillance, they do not have the technical capability to survey the use of communications like those that take place in online games. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labels this difficulty the “going dark” problem, which explains how intelligence-gathering officials lack the technological ability to carry out intelligence gathering as quickly as required. That problem manifests itself as an inability for prosecutors to effectively track and counteract criminal behavior on large scales, as was the case in 2009, when the Drug Enforcement Agency learned of an international drug and weapons smuggling ring with operations in North and South America, Europe, and Africa. Because the leader of that ring knew which communications lacked “intercept solutions,” much of the ring still functions today. The primary difficulty in prosecuting crimes like these relates to law enforcement’s desire to access data in real or near-real time, rather than to access stored information.

In the wake of these interests, how governments approach the regulation and surveillance of online games will greatly affect their citizens and a broad swath of the business world. Examining how law enforcement can effectively monitor and combat organized criminal activity that involves the use of online games.

PLAYING IN THE DARK by Mathew Ruskin


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