US government hires company to hack into video game consoles

US government hires company to hack into video game consoles

Summary: The U.S. Navy is paying a company six figures to hack into used video game consoles and extract sensitive information. The tasks to be completed are for both offline and online data.

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TOPICS: Mobility
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The U.S. government recently posted a project asking for the "Development of Tools for Extracting Information from Video Game Systems." The listing was posted just two months ago, and last week a contract was signed with the California-based company Obscure Technologies. The U.S. is paying $177,237.50 for the job.

The U.S. Navy says it is looking to hack into used consoles to extract any sensitive information exchanged through their messaging services. The organization says it will only use the technology on consoles belonging to nations overseas, because the law doesn't allow it to be used on any "US persons."

Here's the official description from the U.S. Navy listing, posted on February 15: "This project involves furnishing video game systems, both new and used, and creating prototype rigs for capturing data from the video game systems." Obscure Technologies responded three days later.

Even better is the description from the actual contract from the Federal Business Opportunites website, posted on March 26: "R & D effort for the development and delivery of computer forensic tools for analyzing network traffic and stored data created during the use of video game systems."

The Statement of Work document (doc) gives more insight into what the project is all about.

Obscure Technologies will have to perform the following online monitoring tasks:

  • Provide monitoring for 6 new video game systems, a maximum of 2 of any type from any given vendor.
  • Generate clean data (data that does not contain any identifiable information from real people) from new video game systems.
  • Design a prototype rig for capturing data from new video game systems.
  • Implement the prototype rig on the new video game systems.
  • Provide data captured by the prototype rig in the following formats: Packets shall be delivered in PCAP format, Disk images shall be delivered in E01/EWF format.
  • Write a final report, between 10 and 20 pages, to include details of work performed, the engineering approach used and the reason why, any engineering decisions that were made and why, what work remains to be done, and any failings of the approaches followed.

It will also be required to implement the following offline monitoring tasks:

  • Provide used video games systems purchased on the open market.
  • Used systems provided shall be likely to contain data from previous users.
  • Extend tool development to implement creating signatures over sections.
  • Survey console chat room technology and identify potential chokepoints where data may be committed to storage.
  • Identify data storage points on used video game systems and attempt to demonstrate proof of concept.
  • Extract real data from used video game systems.
  • Provide data captured from used video game systems in the following formats: Packets shall be delivered in PCAP format, Disk images shall be delivered in E01/EWF format.
  • Provide video game system extraction software and/or hardware.
  • Write a final report, between 10 and 20 pages, to include details of work performed, the engineering approach used and the reason why, any engineering decisions that were made and why, what work remains to be done, and any failings of the approaches followed.

Obscure Technologies was chosen because it "is the only US company that appears to offer the purchasing of used computer equipment for access to the contained information as a commercial service," according to the Contracting Activity document (docx). The company also has "substantial experience in working with such systems" including a "lead scientist having previously reverse engineered the Microsoft Xbox."

Leveraging content on video game consoles to watch and understand what citizens are up to isn't a exactly a new idea. Gaming studios and academic minds have been tracking gamers for a long time: the former typically want to know how customers use their products while the latter often use the findings for psychological research.

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Topic: Mobility

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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18 comments
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  • Umm...

    Why not just reach out to Geohot? That seems be something he was capable of, just ask Sony! =D
    slickjim
    • There are hackers in prison who would do it cheap

      A few cartons of Marlboro Lights and they could save $177K of the taxpayers' money.

      And they fibbed a little bit when they said they wouldn't use it on "US persons" because their prime targets are actually consoles used by US Military and contractor personnel.
      terry flores
      • "their prime targets"

        And you're allegation is based on what factual information??
        Datadad
      • You could be quite right. Lets look at what we have here.

        Has the whole nature of this particular government endeavor not struck you as odd from many perspectives?

        Lets look at whats been said.

        "The U.S. Navy is paying a company six figures to hack into used video game consoles".
        Read that as not simply any government office at this point, specifically the Navy is doing this. The military.

        "The U.S. Navy says it is looking to hack into used consoles to extract any sensitive information exchanged through their messaging services"
        This seems to confirm as much and the target is the messaging systems the consoles use.

        "The organization says it will only use the technology on consoles belonging to nations overseas, because the law doesn???t allow it to be used on any ???US persons.???
        This seems to refute the notion it would be used on U.S. citizens, even army personnel. But, what if they are going in on the foreign national side side of a game console messaging system and the other end is connecting to a U.S. citizen, perhaps overseas as well, like a soldier? Not so simple an issue.

        "Generate clean data (data that does not contain any identifiable information from real people) from new video game systems."
        This seems a little counter intuitive, I mean if your just randomly monitoring without knowing who, then how does that help? Well, the devils in the details. It just says 'does not contain any identifiable information from real people', it doesn't say anything to the effect that they WILL NOT know who they are monitoring. Who needs identifiable information coming from the console if you already know who is on it. Further, the identifiable information relating to a real person does not guarantee in any way that the very same person who's identifiable info is on the console is the same person using it. That particular information in many cases may be rather pointless.

        "Extract real data from used video game systems"

        Gaming consoles now dont just play games, as we well know they can do a few things and it really looks like the Armed Forces want to know whats been going on with the console in general after its been used.

        Given all these various things this endevour seems to be looking at it dosnt seem to be at all unlikely that if this technology is ever implimented that in fact it could easily end up being used on U.S. soldiers abroad, either by accident or by design. It should make one wonder what the Army is concerned about going on with gaming consoles overseas!
        Cayble
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  • The only thing I use my XBox 360 for it to play games nothing more.

    So I guess this is another example of waisted government spending:) Heck computer and game systems are cheap enough now a days that you can purchase systems like burner phones and use then for specific reasons then destroy them as needed for security purposes and keep your actual systems free of any use the government might find interesting and or naughty. Just saying....

    Pagan jim
    James Quinn
    • "waisted government spending"

      Definitely. Perhaps they should redirect this money back into schools to teach rudimentary spelling and grammar. Just saying....
      Datadad
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  • ZDNet, Can't you stop these spammers???

    James Quinn, sounds like they may want more than just that, or maybe I'm just thinking they do....
    T-Wrench
    • Stop the spammers? They can't even edit the grammar in the articles!

      NT
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    Gave me a chuckle thinking Uncle Sam wants to try and hack into a Sega Genesis... Only possible if it's using an XBand modem!
    jmwells21
  • All that for $177k?

    They expect all that for $177k?

    And if they're doing it, you can bet the CIA, FBI and NSA are doing or looking into doing similar things. I just find it a shame that they apparently aren't coordinating their efforts--results would probably be a lot faster and with much less duplication of effort and expense.
    Rick_R
  • To be used on game systems belonging to nations overseas? I have a bridge

    to sell to anyone that believes in such bull!

    First off, "nations overseas"? Does that exclude Canada and South America? They aren't really "overseas". (Just being picky, I guess).

    Secondly, any game console can easily become "owned by nations overseas". All the government has to do is get a hold of those systems, send them overseas to a friendly country, and then get them back as "from overseas countries". It's so easy to overcome or game the system.
    adornoe
  • Must be an April fool...

    If not them all the mupperts and terrorists in the world can set sail and work from America. Only Americans could think up this crud and think it OK to 'hack' overseas kit and not their own. It's Chinas time to rule the world... can't be any more stupid than this.
    pjmckay
  • I see three possibilities...

    First: Terrorists are using the XBox Live network to plan their attacks and this is an attempt to infiltrate them.

    Second: They want to spy on nerds everywhere to determine, that since they do not have a life anyway, they might be available for military service.

    Third: They are trying to find the very best video game players to participate in a real life Universal Soldier. Halo Players wanted!
    mlashinsky@...