It all starts with a simple job offer, the likes of which you could find at your local job center any morning. This one, however, comes from the French Ministry of Defense and has a surprising offer: a 6-month internship to help French secret services with the “Retro-conception and exploitation of video games protocols.”
This was revealed on January 7th by the French newspaper Le Monde. In short, the secret services want to be able to hack into and listen to what is being said between players of popular video games. This unorthodox ad could be found in the 2018-2019 job offer catalog, which the Ministère des Armées sent to hundreds of top universities and other specialized engineering schools across the country.
The intern, during his time probably buried in some secret French army basement – will be tasked with three missions: the first one is to “map the most popular online video games” of the moment, such as Fortnite, World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and others. After selecting a couple of the video games deemed the most interesting to intelligence services, the intern will have “to extract their network signature.” This is to allow French secret services to recognize among the massive amount of data collected from the web, the data coming from the chat of the selected video games. Last, but not least, the intern will be trusted with “searching and identifying vulnerabilities” that the services could exploit.
The end goal: to hire promising hackers
There is little doubt within the tech community in France that said services already have the means to hack into such platforms. Although the Ministry of Defense says it is genuinely concerned about the potential infiltration of video games by terrorists, some believe that the true aim of the French secret services is to attract new types of engineers, hackers and other IT experts who have a fresh take on and greater understanding of those domains of communication. People who would not naturally be drawn to the service of the State.
And this comes at a time when French president Emmanuel Macron decided to upscale French cybersecurity capabilities.
The November 2018 publication of the French-initiated so-called “Paris Call for Trust & Security in Cyberspace,” signed by 57 states and countless actors of the tech world, as well as the decision to up the budget of the French cyber defense program by 1.6 billion euros demonstrates France’s intent not to remain on the wayside while the great powers develop cyber capabilities.
When consulting this 2018-2019 catalog, one cannot help noticing that the same services also are on the lookout for candidates tasked with studying Android bootloader vulnerabilities or researching new iOS jailbreak vulnerabilities, and so on. This may not be much of a surprise, truth be told – the notion that secret services around the world can hack into our smartphones is not only well-documented but has also been depicted in popular culture. This hasn’t really been the case with spying on online video games.
Nothing new under the spying sun
No one who follows the tech world should be surprised by this one bit of information. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden as far back as 2013 already showed that the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, had been deploying intelligence capabilities aimed at online gaming platforms since 2008.
As for popular culture, in the summer of 2018, Amazon launched the Jack Ryan series, reprising Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst character, who had been depicted by the likes of Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck. The series showed a terrorist cell in Paris communicating with IS in Syria using the chat of an online video game on PlayStation 4. This idea was already present in the remarkable 2015 Norwegian series Occupied (Okkupert, in proper Norwegian) available on Netflix. It was based on an original story by successful crime novelist Jo Nesbø, where Norwegian resistance forces use online video game chat to coordinate their attacks against the Russian invader (spoiler alert: they came for the oil and gas and this time, they were supported by the European Union).
With millions playing online video games across the world, and rumors – albeit proven wrong – that the 2015 Paris attacks had been coordinated via PlayStation 4, it is not surprising that government administrations would want to try and hack into these channels of communication. What is maybe more astonishing is the fact that the French Ministry of Defense feels it can communicate rather openly about its plans to use hacking.
This may actually show a saddening shift in our relation to our need for privacy versus our need for security.
The issue with privacy
The alleged Russian interference in the US elections, recent and not-so-recent reports of massive data hacks from giant companies all the way up to the German Parliament or even the popularization of encrypted communication applications such as Telegram (which then get blamed as the communication tools of criminals and terrorists)… The culture of fear allows governmental administrations to bring a Faustian pact to the table: let us access everything you say, do, see, and hear so that we can protect you. These administrations now take it for granted that no one will take offense at a job ad revealing their will to hack into one’s privacy. They even seem to believe this will prove very attractive for young candidates.
It is important to restate here that privacy is a basic and essential right of the people, even if a fragile and difficult one to protect online. Just as no administration should be allowed to tap into your phone on the mere pretext that criminals use phones; no report – whether true or not – of devious usage of online video game channels should cause us to let our guard down and let the wolf in.
If anything, this ad should serve as a reminder for the need to adopt a mindful online attitude. Using a VPN will not shield you from someone who has hacked into your favorite video game profile, but it can protect you if you were smart when creating that account. And it’s generally a sensible thing to do, regardless of whether you’re playing, shopping, booking your next holiday, or chatting with friends – using a VPN should nowadays be as natural as using an antivirus.
Take a look at our best VPN for gaming list and find the best solution for your needs.