Gaming through a PRISM

, | Games

Light dispersion illustration.

The Guardian and The Washington Post published heavyweight stories yesterday about PRISM, a United States information-gathering intelligence effort that’s been operating since 2007. The simple explanation is that if you’ve ever done anything through Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Verizon, Facebook, Apple, and a host of other companies, that data has been available to various US intelligence agencies for them to sift through. This should be a concern for gamers.

Let’s get serious after the break.

Those intelligence agencies (and it turns out that it’s not just US agencies helping themselves to that information) do things with that data. They’re not telling anyone what they specifically do, but presumably it’s got something to do with maintaining freedom or apple pie. Government officials assure us that it’s all cool.

“Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

If it’s all a little ominous-sounding it’s because it is ominous. The fallout from this revelation is ongoing. US and UK officials are responding in different ways, but the takeaway at this point is that it’s happening and it’s not going to stop.

But what does PRISM mean for gamers?

Unfortunately, no one outside of a few shadowy agencies that don’t want to talk about it really know the extent of the monitoring and how much of that comes from gaming. The government says that the data collected only affects records of communication and not the content of data, but the PRISM documents seem to dispute this.

Skype can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone, and for any combination of “audio, video, chat, and file transfers” when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.

It’s easy to think that your iPad Tiny Tower in-app purchases don’t hold much value for the counter-terrorism effort, but consider that companies pay a lot of money for access to that data. It’s what Facebook and Google are all about.

Are Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo watching you through their consoles? Are they giving that information to PRISM? Microsoft says that the Kinect device does not transmit anything that users don’t want sent. They have a similar page for the Xbox One which requires Kinect. Unfortunately, neither policy covers regular use of the console. Actions such as playing games, what you do in the game, what you say over chat or Skype (Skype being one of the primary sources mentioned in the PRISM documents), what you watch through Netflix or Hulu, and what ads you click on are all fair game for data collection. You agreed to it in the Terms of Service. The same goes with Sony and Nintendo.

All three companies maintain that they collect a lot of data anonymously and users can opt out of aspects of it, but the future is always online, always connected. The power of the cloud! All this data is being used to serve you better ads, build a smoother online experience, and even troubleshoot games live. Unfortunately, as the details of PRISM show, being anonymous doesn’t matter once the government starts sending out court orders from secret organizations. Patterns can be tracked back to specific users. Anything they collect for internal use can, and will, be given to government officials when they are ordered to hand it over.

Think about that the next time you go on a profanity-laced tirade while playing the next Call of Duty multiplayer match. Some poor schlub in a government building may have to listen to it. Hey, now that I think about it, maybe this is all okay.