Peer into any military recreation hall from Hawaii to Heidelberg and you're likely to find a common sight: young service members engrossed in the adrenaline rush of online gaming, whether on government-issued consoles or their personal devices.
The thrills that gaming presents to military personnel have recently taken centre stage with the arrest of Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman. Charged with the illicit handling and distribution of highly classified material in a geopolitics chat room on Discord - initially a haven for gamers - Teixeira's case is a grim reminder of the potential risks lurking in the world of gaming.
Classified information can be disseminated in a myriad of illicit manners, from hushed exchanges in shadowy corners to the vast network of social media. Yet, the military has been particularly wary of online gaming forums, which hold a unique allure for younger service members. The capability of the US authorities to monitor these forums, however, is restricted, making it challenging to ensure national security isn't compromised.
"Online gaming sites and the social media realm at large have been on the counterintelligence radar for around ten years," Dan Meyer of the Tully Rinckey law firm, specialising in military and security clearance cases, highlighted.
Potential foreign spies could exploit an avatar in an online game to foster connections with young service members. Over time, this confidence-building process might extend to other social media platforms. The use of avatars for surveillance purposes isn't a novel concept, with US intelligence agencies known to have employed similar tactics in games like World of Warcraft and Second Life.
Nevertheless, the military is constrained when it comes to domestic surveillance – that responsibility falls under the purview of agencies like the FBI. Issues of privacy arise when monitoring armed forces personnel, as the Defense Department discovered when formulating social media policies to counteract extremism within its ranks.
Interestingly, the military maintains an active presence within the gaming community. Both the Army and the Navy boast dedicated esports teams competing in video game tournaments – a strategic endeavour aimed at connecting with and recruiting the digitally-inclined younger generation. However, there's no evidence of similar efforts to monitor potential threats or leaks within these platforms.
Responding to concerns, Pentagon spokeswoman Sue Gough emphasized the department's primary intelligence focus is international. Any information collected on American citizens complies with legal and policy guidelines, ensuring the protection of privacy and civil liberties. She further noted that such procedures require the attorney general's approval.
Despite the challenges, the military continues to emphasize the importance of safeguarding classified information through rigorous training for service members. Following the recent online leaks, the department is re-evaluating its protocols for classified information protection, narrowing the scope of access, and reinforcing the responsibility to preserve classified information, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks outlined in a recent memo.
However, Peter W. Singer, author of "Burn In" and Pentagon advisor, suggests this may not suffice. His novel, based on a plot to attack the US conceived within an online war game's private chamber, portrays gaming channels as another branch of social networks ripe for exploitation.
Singer foresees future espionage plots and criminal activities finding sanctuary within these private online realms, stating, "There's a shift from it being viewed as niche, and for kids, to adults using it for everything from marketing and entertainment to criminality." He adds, "Is this the future? Most definitely."
Yet, legal restrictions and the overwhelming magnitude of sites and private chats make monitoring an impossible task for the Pentagon, Singer explains. The approach should not be 'how do we find these leaks in gaming channels?' but rather, 'how do we prevent them from leaking in the first place?'"
[Based on a story originally published on AP News]