Our game consoles are likely spying on us, and this is business as usual

Opinion

“I think there may be a surveillance device on my car,” my mother-in-law said.

She had visited to make dinner for the kids, something she does once a week or so. I dutifully went outside, took a look at the offending piece of technology, and after a few quick searches online I found out she was right. But at least it was a surveillance device that she had paid for.

A quick drive for ice cream would have created almost no data fifteen years ago. Modern cars, on the other hand, are fitted with global positioning systems, satellite radio, and brains that keep all their diagnostic data in one place. A drive to the ice cream parlor today creates reams of data, and it’s all out there somewhere. I explained to my mother in law that yes, it was a surveillance device but no, it wasn’t something from the NSA. It was just a normal part of her vehicle.

I wonder how many more conversations of this type we'll have now that we know intelligence agencies have expressed interest in the use of Kinect for data collection.

The spy in our living room

I knew Edward Snowden. We weren’t friends, and I was barely aware of his thoughts on privacy or his government work, but we talked about video games on a few occasions. He was a member of the Ars Technica community, and he read my gaming coverage there. The connection was strong enough that I was contacted by the media asking for comment about his actions. I kept my mouth shut, and later wrote a story about it for the Penny Arcade Report.

That story is gone from the official source now, but of course copies of it exist online here and there. I have no doubt that there is a copy of it, along with other information on my own life, in a government file.

My mother spent years working overseas. She spent time in Ghana, and a few places in the Middle East. I went to visit her for a week or two in Egypt when I was younger and had a great time. We used to joke about whether her phones were tapped, and that barely seems funny anymore. These days I just chalk it up to another check I've earned in an arbitrary and possible imaginary list of what might make someone a target for data collection.

I debated talking about this at all online, but that precaution seems futile. If Buzzfeed knew enough about my conversations with Snowden to try to get me to comment, the NSA and CIA likely have everything we ever said to each other on file. There’s no reason not to speak about it in public, and my ears perk up when the subject of data collection comes up in the news. These days my ears are more or less perpetually raised.

I'm not the only one. Friends in corporate jobs have told me they’re encouraged in tape over the cameras on their laptops, just in case. Now that we know the government is spying on us, what used to seem like science fiction has turned into day to day reality. So the cameras are covered, and the Kinect is removed.

All of these thoughts went through my head as I was trying to identify the antenna on my mother in law’s car. My first thought was that she was being paranoid, while my second and third thought involved some various combinations of "but on the other hand …" It didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that she became a target for data collection in some way, and we know the FBI places tracking devices on people’s cars, and they may also be passively collecting information about our vehicles.

Now we know that multiple intelligence agencies have looked at the Kinect as a possible way to collect information. Xbox One Kinect can see in the dark. It can keep a moving human being in focus without motors. It knows how to isolate voices from background noise. The privacy implications of having a device that originally couldn't be removed pointed at your living room at all times was always kind of scary, and that fear has been at least partially justified.

The government is going to get this information, no matter what we do with our gaming consolesIt's not like there isn't precedent for this use of Microsoft technology. There have been documents released that state Microsoft allowed the NSA to monitor Skype video calls, among other services.

"[The document] also shows that Microsoft created a special way for the NSA to get around the encryption in Microsoft’s latest version of Outlook," VentureBeat reported.

"The government reportedly investigated this issue with Microsoft two months prior to the launch of the new Outlook. Futhermore, the documents reveal that Microsoft and the FBI worked together to give the feds access to its cloud storage product, Skydrive," the story continued.

This has increased my resolve to keep the Kinect from my living room, but of course my daughter is interested in the new Fantasia game. I’ve since disconnected the camera from my PlayStation 4, but I’ll likely reconnect it the next time I want to stream some games via Twitch. The webcam of my laptop is staring at me while I write this, and I’m surrounded by other devices that I know are collecting information about how and where I use them, and these devices are made by companies we know have provided access to intelligence agencies.

The privacy concerns with the Kinect were explored before it was released, and Microsoft has detailed what sort of information the Kinect collects and keeps. On the other hand, intelligence isn’t effective if the targets know how the data is collected. Few will be naïve enough to think that Microsoft's assurances are the entirety of the story, and I would argue that it’s not only not surprising the Kinect is seen as a good to collect intelligence, but likely that it’s already in use for those purposes.

On the other hand, there's little you can do to protect yourself against this form of government-sanctioned invasion. You can remove the Kinect from your home theater, and you can opt not to add the camera to your PlayStation 4, but it’s not like our cell phones aren’t already wonderful devices with cameras, microphones and tracking devices that we carry with us at all times. If the government wants this information they’re going to get it, no matter what we do with our gaming consoles.

It's important to pay attention to what our government is doing, but this issue is much bigger than our gaming consoles, and we open ourselves up to much greater forms of intrusion on a daily basis. If they're listening anyway, I might as well enjoy my voice commands. Xbox? On.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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