Tech //

2014: A Microsoft Odyssey

Oscar Coleman puts down his controller and picks up his tin-foil hat.


You’ve probably been inside the Microsoft Tech Lounge. You can’t really miss it. It’s next to Subway, it has nice sofas, new laptops, and the all-important strong Wi-Fi signal. It’s also where the latest and greatest Microsoft products are unleashed to be tested out by students. It’s where they showcased the Xbox Kinect camera at launch and, as of this semester, the new Xbox One.

Last July, the Snowden leaks revealed Microsoft had allowed the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a backdoor to spy on its users. Journalists found that, in the months immediately following Microsoft’s takeover of Skype, this new capability had tripled the amount of Skype calls being collected through the NSA’s PRISM surveillance system.

In February, The Guardian reported further collaboration between Microsoft and the NSA. It alleged that a GCHQ program called Optic Nerve targeted 1.8 million Yahoo users as part of an effort to collect webcam images in bulk. As well as revealing that a “surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person”, internal GCHQ documents showed that Kinect was part of a wider program of webcam surveillance. Previous reports showed the Xbox Live network itself had been targeted by the NSA.

Every Xbox One has a Kinect packed in. If you’re a cynic like me, this means that every Xbox is potentially the NSA’s window into your university lounge, your living room, or even more saucily, your bedroom.

Among the giant trove of documents released by Edward Snowden, one describes how the government can character assassinate those it deems a threat to national security. Consider the fact that successive US governments have targeted surveillance against political enemies of the day: African-American civil rights leaders, student radicals, queer and peace activists. It’s also worth noting claims by one-time Wikileaks spokesperson and hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum; that the NSA can secretly turn on your computer microphone at will.

Microsoft denies they’ve allowed vulnerabilities, which invite blanket surveillance. Regarding the Xbox Kinect allegations, it says, “we’re concerned about any reports of governments surreptitiously collecting private customer data. That’s why in December we initiated a broad effort to expand encryption across our services and are advocating for legal reforms.”

Jon Lawrence, from digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia, explains it differently. “It’s important to note that firstly, knowledge about these activities is likely to have been very closely controlled within the companies themselves, and that those people with knowledge would likely be subject to prosecution with harsh penalties if they spoke about these activities,” he told Honi.

He believes that Microsoft might not willingly provide access to their systems, with the financial risk of losing consumer trust simply too great. They are instead “forced and/or paid to do so, or the intelligence agencies may have simply found their own way in.”

Regarding the data itself, Lawrence finds it “difficult to imagine how any data resulting from [games console] surveillance would be of any real value to intelligence agencies”. He considers it to be “just another case of data being collected because it’s technically possible, rather than for any defined purpose”.

Out of context, the notion that your Xbox can spy on you may seem a crackpot theory. All the same, I’d be wary of allowing a creepy always-on camera into your most vulnerable areas. The Microsoft Tech Lounge is probably a safe space; just make sure you don’t spill any state secrets there.

This game surveillance affair makes me nostalgic for the good old days of offline gaming. Back then, it didn’t matter how much your government hated you – you could still game in peace.

Bring back the Nintendo 64.