US Military Funds Effort to Hack Video Game Consoles

Americas Army
A magazine cover featuring the U.S. Army's official video game, America's Army, available on the Xbox and PC. (Image credit: U.S. Army | Ubisoft)

Popular video game consoles such as Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox 360 may resemble the new battlefields for national security in the eyes of the U.S. military. The U.S. Navy has begun funding a project to hack previously owned game consoles in an effort to dig up gamers' online chat room information and other stored data.

U.S. console gamers can breathe a tiny sigh of relief for now, because the current project forbids targeting "U.S. persons." Instead, the Navy wants a California-based company called Obscure Technologies to buy video game consoles bought in used overseas markets, and to create computer forensic tools capable of hacking such consoles.

"This project requires the purchasing of used video game systems outside the US in a manner that is likely to result in their containing significant and sensitive information from previous users," according to a Navy justification and approval notice issued yesterday (March 26).

Obscure Technologies apparently has plenty of experience in hacking game consoles to mine data — the company's lead scientist had "previously reverse engineered the Microsoft Xbox," according to the Navy's notice.

"Analysis of the game systems requires specific knowledge of working with the hardware of embedded systems that have significant anti-tampering technology," the Navy notice says. "Obscure Technologies has substantial experience in working with such systems."

Sgt. Daniel Tripp, of Chapel Hill, N.C.(left), and Sgt. Dustin Butcher, of Wilson, N.C., unwind between missions by testing each other's golfing abilities on an Xbox game as Sgt. Joseph Jones, of Boomer, N.C. waits for his turn in the competition June 30. The three are infantrymen with Company B, 252nd Combined Arms Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team and live together at Joint Security Station Saydiyah, in southern Baghdad. (Image credit: U.S. Army Pfc. Kelly LeCompte, 30th HBCT PAO, MND-B)

The Navy wants the company to not only hack "dirty" used game consoles, but also to show how to scrape "clean" data from newly bought game consoles. The new consoles being provided for such testing include a pair of Nintendo Wii consoles, a pair of Sony Playstation 3 systems, and a pair of Microsoft Xbox 360 systems, according to a project summary posted on Feb. 15.

The military isn't alone in wanting to mine data from video games, even if its focus may lean more toward tracking terrorists and enemies abroad. Both game studios and academic researchers have come up with ways to track gamer actions and behaviors during specific PC or console video games — either for better understanding gamers as customers or for studying human behavior in the equivalent of virtual labs.

There is also nothing particularly secretive about the hacking project. The Navy contract specifies that it plans to publicize the results at conferences and publish in academic journals, as well as make open- source software from the contract available to academic researchers.

Still, the Navy does expect Obscure Technologies to deliver hardware and software capable of hacking video game consoles at the end of its $177,000, 15-month contract in July 2013. Such tools are expected to be made for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate — and there's no particular mention of what Homeland Security might want with them.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.