The alternative title to this opinionated, speculative piece should be “World couldn’t let me finish Breath of the Wild in peace”. As I just alluded to in this very first sentence: everything I am about to say is working on the assumption that the released Vault 7 documents on Wikileaks are authentic chunks of information. Regardless of if later they are further confirmed to be true or revealed to be completely false, one should consider how such a theoretical privacy and security breech on this scale impacts gaming as a whole. Going back twenty years ago, any discussion or concerns about online security would only impact a small segment of the gaming sphere, but in our modern era we have increasingly tied even the most one player experiences to an “always online” model in one sense or another.
So consider the text to follow to be a 3-point list of past video game controversies and concerns that could definitely tie back in with the information brought to light by the Vault 7 leaks. As a consumer, it’s sadly become necessary to stay aware of how our hobbies are being affected by the geo-political landscape and our government’s stance regarding accessibility to entertainment. In an ideal world I wouldn’t bother you to ponder these points, but given recent developments I would encourage you just to keep this stuff in the back of your minds:
1. The “Always Online” model
Since the earliest days of online gaming via the PC, the issue of intellectual property protection and lost earnings has been a hot topic in the industry. Video game studios are afraid of losing revenue through unauthorized distribution of their product and, while that business concern is valid, it has remained to be seen in any hard-data study that the issue is devastating enough to warrant the amount of resources put in to maintaining servers that any particular title would, theoretically, be connected to. On the consumer end of these concerns: besides the fact DRM can interfere with the game itself, the key reason stated by gamers why this is a ridiculous expectation is that it’s unreasonable to expect every gamer to always have access to an internet connection capable of interfacing with the game studio’s server. So swinging things back around to the issues raised in the information now available through the Vault 7 document, you really have to ask yourself: What does the “always online” model really have to entice gamers?
While the two counter-arguments make sense, this new piece of information adds a third party to the matter. Game Developers clearly cannot ask the U.S. government to somehow ignore utilizing security issues caused by certain popular games being always online, because it is considered justified as part of national security policy. So that places gamers and developers in an interesting place: while a third party is theoretically imposing on both of them, they can only negotiate between each other and not directly with the new “elephant in the room”. If it is true that the CIA is capable of hacking more devices then previously believed, and if they can do so easily at will; what benefit is it to gamers to risk that constant exposure just to be able to play a particular video game? This is a question I do not inherently have any kind of answer to, but it’s one that both gamers and developers should be asking themselves and each other.
The insistence of an always online gaming console wasn’t received well by the gaming community at large.
2. The Kinetic and Webcams for Streaming
The X Box One, with it’s built-in camera, was subject to criticisms about online security during it’s late-stage preview events and around the time of launch. Microsoft heavily insisted the system would need to remain always online, caving to pressure and reversing this only after significant backlash had erupted all over the internet. In addition to demanding the system required being online in order to access content, Microsoft had also wanted the kinetic camera to be a mandatory feature built-into the console itself. To this day, most gamers including myself do not fully comprehend their defense well-enough to re-iterate it accurately.
In regards to the Vault 7 information we now have access to, this idea of an always online microphone and camera unit plays back into issues mentioned in my last point and bleeding into the next point of concern; that being we can now say with good certainty that intelligence agencies can absolutely access most cameras connected to the internet. At the time consumers were worried about similar privacy issues while pushing back against the Kinetic’s inclusion being non-negotiable. There were assurances at the time that Microsoft had placed it’s best security efforts behind making certain the always-live console would not betray it’s owner: however it’s now clear that the US government is capable of cracking many digital defenses we thought were reasonably impenetrable.
While I have mentioned the CIA repeatedly by name, most consumers and members of the gaming community are probably not that concerned about the government having some degree of access to their digital business. I admit that I myself am not very concerned about that but what’s really the smoking gun is that there is reason to believe that the technology being used to open up our digital devices is not being kept secure.
It borders on hearsay, but there is reason to believe that while these resources were either developed or compiled by the US government, it may be more freely available then any of us would like to assume. So while I don’t personally care if the CIA can listen to me singing in the shower, I wouldn’t want a total stranger, an independent body not held accountable to any laws or regulations, to have that kind of access to my life.
Even if no one watches your Let’s Play channel, at least someone might be storing it for the future.
3. Underage Let’s Players
Though not all Let’s Players are under age and not all underage children are Let’s Players, there is a significant amount of the Let’s Play community that is comprised of children experimenting with being the next generation of online entertainers. With what we know now about the access to personal electronics the CIA might have, it is clear that a webcam set to “off” is not necessarily off. In the documents available so far, it’s apparent that one can theoretically make a device visually behave as if it is off while passively recording: making it possible for the electronics in a child’s room to record everything they don’t intend to share with the outside world.
For parents this should be taken into consideration, but definitely not as a call to yank your child away from pursuing their dream of becoming a youtube celebrity. Just be aware that now more then ever it is vital to have that conversation with your child, or if you are an adult who knows a child that streams, this is the time to reach out and do a bit of mentoring: talk to them about the concept of “public” and “private” life. Talk to them about how it’s impossible to fully erase things that get sent out onto the internet and that being mindful now can save you a lot of embarrassment in the future. It is probably not a good idea to fully elaborate on the Vault 7 leaks to them, as it might not be appropriate for their current mental or emotional level of development to handle: but by having this talk you are essentially covering the same privacy precautions.
Admittedly this entire piece is bordering on fear-mongering, but I wanted to address this new uncertainty about online privacy, within the context of gaming, before too much time had passed. If you are worried about what might already be out there somewhere, know that what we have complete control over starts now. Whatever might have been recorded or saved before is out of our hands, but from now on we can try to proactively control our privacy.