WASHINGTON – Step into a U.S. military recreation hall at a base almost anywhere in the world and you’re bound to see it: young troops immersed in the world of online games, using government-funded gaming machines or their own consoles.
The enthusiasm military personnel have for gaming — and the risk that carries — is in the spotlight after Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman, was charged with illegally taking and posting highly classified material in a geopolitical chat room on Discord, a social media platform that started as a hangout for gamers.
State secrets can be illegally shared in countless different ways, from whispered conversations and dead drops to myriad social media platforms. But online gaming forums have long been a particular worry of the military because of their lure for young service members. And U.S. officials are limited in how closely they can monitor those forums to make sure nothing on them threatens national security.
“The social media world and gaming sites in particular have been identified as a counterintelligence concern for about a decade,” said Dan Meyer, a partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm, which specializes in military and security clearance issues.
Foreign intelligence agents could use an avatar in a gaming room to connect with “18 to 23-year-old sailors gaming from the rec center at Norfolk Naval Base, win their confidence over for months, and then, through that process, start to connect with them on other social media platforms,” Meyer said, noting that U.S. spy agencies have also created avatars to conduct surveillance in the online games World of Warcraft and Second Life.
The military doesn't have the authority to conduct surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil — that's the role of domestic law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Even when monitoring members of the armed forces, there are privacy issues, something the Defense Department ran into head-on as it tried to establish social media policies to counter extremism in the ranks.
The military does, however, have a presence in the online game community. Both the Army and the Navy have service members whose full-time job is to compete in video game tournaments as part of military esports teams. The teams are seen as an effective way to reach and potentially recruit youth who have grown up with online gaming since early childhood. But none of the services said they had any sort of similar team playing online to monitor for potential threats or leaks.
Pentagon spokeswoman Sue Gough said its intelligence activities are primarily focused internationally. In collecting any information on Americans, the Defense Department does so "in accordance with law and policy and in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties," she said in a statement to The Associated Press. She said the procedures must be approved by the attorney general.
Instead, the military has focused on training service members never to reveal classified information in the first place. In wake of the online leaks, the department is reviewing its processes to protect classified information, reducing the number of people who have access, and reminding the force that "the responsibility to safeguard classified information is a lifetime requirement for each individual granted a security clearance," Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said in a memo issued Thursday following Teixeira's arrest.
But that may not be enough.
“These various gaming channels are just another form of social networks,” said Peter W. Singer, whose novel “Burn In” centered on attacks on the U.S. that are plotted in a private chamber of an online war game — and where all the plotters use avatars of historical figures to disguise themselves.
Singer, who has advised the Pentagon on future warfare, expects that future espionage and plotting will likely find haven in some of these private online worlds.
“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,” Singer said. “Is this the future? Most definitely.”
But besides the legal limitations on monitoring these games, the vast number of sites and private chats would be virtually impossible for the Pentagon to manage, Singer said.
“Your answer to this can’t be ‘How do I find it on video game channels?’” Singer said. “Your answer has to be, ‘How do I keep it from getting out in the first place?’"