Why the ‘ISIS Used PS4s’ Story Is Probably Bunk: Breakdown of a Stupid Rumor

By

Over the weekend, an article posted by a Forbes contributor (the publication’s term for unvetted writers that publish on its site) pointed out that Belgian officials had complained that monitoring communication on the PlayStation 4 was “even more difficult to keep track of than [popular messaging app] WhatsApp.” The comment was actually delivered before last Friday’s attack — but it, and the Forbes article, set off an avalanche of erroneous speculation that the attackers had planned their operation on the gaming console, culminating in a remarkably stupid Today show segment Monday morning.

It’s certainly possible that ISIS terrorists are using their PS4s to communicate. Certainly, governments are vaguely concerned about it: It’s worth noting that in the past, spy agencies have monitored persistent online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life. But if you’ve played a video game online in the last half-decade or so, you’ll know that planning a terrorist attack through one seems like a really stupid idea. For one thing, as Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports at Motherboard, game consoles contain mechanisms for reporting abuse, so it’s likely that Sony or Microsoft could access user messages in certain cases. That makes it terrible for secret communications, as one Austrian teenager learned when he was arrested and charged with using his PS4 to download bomb-making plans.

But the PS4-as-terrorism-signal moral panic got much stupider than just the misguided suggestion that terrorists were using its built-in messaging system. Following a lead in the Forbes piece, BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “Players, for instance, can use their weapons during a game to send a spray of bullets onto a wall, spelling out whole sentences to each other.” Which, well, yes, they can do that. But it would be both foolish and impractical.

For one thing, video games record a lot of stats. If you’re playing a popular console game online, the odds are pretty good that an enormous amount of data is getting sent back to the developer. Since 2007, Halo has allowed users to save replays of matches, down to every bullet fired, while Call of Duty used to track things like “Kill/death ratios, weapon stats, encounter distances, headshots, assists.” These things get logged in a database. An untraceable message sprayed into a wall with digital bullets is a romantic idea of techno-terror that plays well in headlines and on TV. But it would almost certainly be tracked in one way or another

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that terrorists did want to go through with this scheme. How would they go about doing it? Multiplayer shooters generally offer the option of a public or private match. If ISIS decided to communicate through a private match, it’d be creating a traceable record of multiple ISIS gaming accounts. If terrorists attempted to communicate secretly in public matches, they’d run the risk of having some bystander witness their (annoyingly difficult) terrorism planning.

Player 1: Okay, I’ll flank left.

Player 2: Cool, cool. I’ll head right.

Player 3: [Writes ISIS terrorism plan with bullets]

Players 1 and 2: UUUUuuuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhH????

That’s not even touching on the fact that it wouldn’t fly on a technical level: Bullet holes in video games are flat textures applied to an already existing 3-D model; it’s almost never worth the memory allocation to keep bullet holes around for very long. That’s why in video games, bullet holes, scorch marks from explosives, and dead bodies tend to magically disappear. It keeps the game from getting mired and running poorly. The point is: Bullet-hole messages wouldn’t last very long. Certainly not long enough to write out full sentences.

What else is there? The original Forbes article proposes, “An ISIS agent could spell out an attack plan in Super Mario Maker’s coins and share it privately with a friend.” Except that every level uploaded from Mario Maker is public. Which means that ISIS would be making their communications publicly accessible to anyone who owns Super Mario Maker. Seems like a bad move.

Video-game terrorism sounds compelling if you’re trying to sell a good story to an audience scared of terrorism, distrustful of technology, and ambivalent about video games. But it doesn’t make much sense.