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The problem with cracking down on PlayStations to stop terrorists

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If you're scared of gaming consoles, you're scared of privacy

There's a joke in the legal world that criminals' most dangerous weapon is the flush toilet. Imagine, a perfect evidence-disposal system installed in every home in America, available whenever you hear the detectives knock on your door. Tens thousands of potential arrests have been flushed down toilets over the years.

So why do we keep toilets around? Well, they're useful for other things.

Today, instead of the flush toilet, we learned about the PlayStation 4. In a now-retracted story, Forbes made the case that PlayStation's private chat and VoIP features may have been used in plotting the attacks, kicking off a wave of concerns over gaming networks and their potential use in plotting terrorist acts.

Why shouldn't we surveil the PlayStation network?

But while Forbes has since backed off the claim that a PS4 was found in an attacker's apartment, the air of suspicion hasn't fully lifted. There really have been cases of ISIS sympathizers using the PlayStation network to communicate or recruit, and it's the kind of offbeat channel an intelligence officer might miss. PlayStation’s network is open to anyone with the right console, and there’s lots of noise to distract anyone who might look there. As the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill heads to parliament, the political will to clamp down on those networks is stronger than it's ever been. So why shouldn't we?

The first thing to say is that the PlayStation network isn't particularly secure. It's not end-to-end encrypted, and Sony is open about the company's right to surveil users, even if it doesn't have much of an apparatus to do so. Unlike encrypted chat apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, the PlayStation networks weren't designed with security in mind, and most users care far more about latency and downtime than they do about privacy. If an intelligence service is looking for you specifically, it's just not that good of a place to hide.

If that's scary, then all private spaces are scary

What the networks do have is a lot of people, which makes them useful for meeting inconspicuously. You won't stand out if you set up a private chat on PSN, the way you might if you log onto a protected chat room or IRC channel. It's the protection of the crowd, the same way you might talk more freely in a noisy bar where you won’t be overheard. This kind of privacy is more about cultural expectations than strict security, and it’s particularly important because of that. It can be used by terrorists, sure, but so can dimly lit restaurants and crowded parks. If that's scary, then all private spaces are scary. If you believe that logic, you've made a boogeyman out of privacy itself.

All of which brings us back to the flush toilet. In the wake of a tragedy, shock makes us value security over all else, often forgetting smaller virtues in the rush to protect ourselves. It's a natural impulse, but it's worth considering where it might take us, left unchecked. With enough fear, anything comes to look threatening: a gaming console, a toilet, a smartphone. Will destroying them make us more or less powerful?