Gaming systems are not just for games any more
By ELISA SAND, Staff Reporter
When gaming systems were first introduced, they were for the simple purpose of allowing people to play games. As those systems have evolved to include connections to the Internet and the ability to challenge other players around the world, uses have taken a darker turn.|
Dakota State University Assistant Professor Ashley Podhradsky said her research has been focusing on the forensic investigation of the Xbox 360 -- one of three popular gaming systems that also include the Wii and PS3.
"We looked at the vulnerabilities that exist in the virtual world," she said.
Criminal activity historically has taken place through the use of a computer, but it has worked its way into gaming systems through connections over the Internet.
The problem is that gaming systems are not set up like computers. Podhradsky said this makes them a more obscure device to investigate and makes it more difficult to connect a crime to a criminal.
Podhradsky said her research focuses on the forensic investigation of a device. Xbox systems are loaned to students who use and return them so that she can examine the system and determine the type of activity that's taken place.
She found this research topic through a former colleague at Drexell University.
"I wasn't aware of criminal activity going on until three years ago," she said. "I met Rob D'Ovidio at Drexell University. He'd been researching the softer side of the problem. His research gives me a reason to do mine, and mine validates his."
Podhradsky said D'Ovidio's research looks at the type of criminal activity that takes place. One example is a money laundering scheme that involves the purchase and resale of virtual goods purchased through a game.
Podhradsky said increased criminal activity means the potential for child endangerment. Because gaming systems aren't recognized as a computer, a convicted pedophile can have a gaming system and access to texting, video and audio features to communicate with other players.
Another vulnerability that a player faces is the theft of their user account. Eventually the user account can get back to the original owner, but Podhradsky said quite a bit of damage can be done in that time period.
Podhradsky said the activity on these systems is becoming more recognized in larger cities, and through their research they've worked with a variety of federal and local law enforcement agencies to assist with investigations that require the examination of these devices.
"We're contacted quite a bit to help with investigations," she said.
When contacted, Podhradsky said, she provides agencies with "white papers" that give instructions on how to investigate a machine, the type of information that can be found and what that information means.
While specific forensic investigation processes are available for a computer, Podhradsky said, they aren't yet developed for a gaming system, and that's one of the goals she hopes to accomplish.
"With gaming systems, we're not even at the point where we have automated systems," she said. "We're at a very granular level."
Another challenge is the fact that gaming systems constantly change with new features -- like the new Xbox system that includes a mobile unit which can continue a game that's started on the main Xbox system.
Adding that second device creates new questions, she said. Where does the data get stored that determines the activity of the player? Is it on the mobile device, within the gaming system or is it split between the two devices?
Podhradsky refers to this type of criminal activity as "security by obscurity" because it is more difficult to investigate.
She said the same safety precautions should be taken when a used gaming system is sold to a third party, including selling the system without the hard drive or using special software to nuke the hard drive and make sure all personal data is erased.
"We have to take the same due diligence with gaming systems as with computers to protect information," she said.
Podhradsky said physically destroying the hard drives is one option to protecting personal information, but using a program called Boot and Nuke is another option. This free software (available at dband.org) will completely wipe all information from a hard drive and works with gaming systems.
When it comes to any device -- computer, mobile device or gaming system, Podhradsky said, personal information should always be safeguarded at all costs.
"The only thing we can do is make it harder for them," she said.
Podhradsky said her research has been funded through a variety of sources that include a performance improvement fund grant from the South Dakota Board of Regents; internal funding through Drexell University where she taught prior to DSU; and three fellowships through the University of California-Berkeley.
©Madison Daily Leader 2013
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