Data Leak Shows National Security Risks of Online Gaming Groups

19 April 2023

Experts say online gaming services have long presented national security risks that are difficult for governments to control.

One such example is the recent release, or leak, of highly secret U.S. military documents shared on the Discord messaging service. Discord is known for being a popular place for online video gamers to stay in touch and share ideas.

U.S. officials have charged a suspect with illegally taking and publishing the documents on Discord. The suspect is Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. He joined the National Guard in 2019.

In this file photo, a gamer plays Electronic Arts' Apex Legends in Jersey City, N.J., on March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)
In this file photo, a gamer plays Electronic Arts' "Apex Legends" in Jersey City, N.J., on March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Government documents explaining the charges state that Teixeira served as a computer specialist with the Massachusetts National Guard. National Guard forces in the United States usually perform duties for their own state. But they can also work together with the U.S. army and serve in federal military operations.

Teixeira worked in a group that provides intelligence support to many branches of the U.S. military, the charging documents said. He had a "top secret" security clearance, meaning he had access to highly sensitive military information.

The U.S. government accuses Teixeira of sharing highly sensitive, or classified, documents about the Ukraine war and other top national security issues. The leak has raised new questions about America's ability to safeguard its classified secrets.

Some of the leaks are believed to have started on Discord. A user group called "Thug Shaker Central" had about 24 individuals who talked about their favorite guns and shared memes and jokes. The charging documents said Teixeira started publishing classified information on social media around December 2022.

The group also included a running discussion on wars, including talk of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In that discussion, one user known as "the O.G." often posted material he described as classified. Officials say O.G. was the name Teixeira used online.

Technology experts say online gaming groups have long been a worry of military leaders because of their popularity with young service members. U.S. officials have said they are limited in how closely they can follow suspicious activity to make sure published information does not threaten 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. He is a partner at the legal firm Tully Rinckey, which specializes in military and security clearance issues.

The military is involved in the online gaming community. Both the Army and Navy say they employ service members whose full-time job is to play in video game competitions as part of military eSports teams. The teams are considered an effective tool to possibly reach young gamers.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Department, Sue Gough, said its intelligence collection activities are mainly centered internationally. In a statement to The Associated Press, Gough said the U.S. military carries out such activities in a way that follows "law and policy and in a manner that protects privacy and civil liberties."

Because of the difficulties of policing online leaks, the military instead carries out efforts to train service members never to release classified information in the first place.

Since the latest military information leak, the U.S. Defense Department is studying its processes to protect classified information better. Officials say these efforts include reducing the number of people who can see classified material.

The department is also advising service members with security clearances, or permissions, that they have a lifetime requirement "to safeguard classified information," Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said.

Those efforts, however, may not be enough.

Peter W. Singer is the writer of the fictional book Burn In, which imagines attacks on the U.S. planned by users of an online war game. Singer has advised U.S. military officials on security matters. He told the AP he considers gaming groups as just another form of social networks that carry national security risks.

He predicted that future spy plans and activities will likely launch from private online worlds. Singer said the growing number of social media and messaging services are no longer seen as popular places mainly for young people and online gamers.

Today, children and adults are using the services for everything from marketing and entertainment to criminality," Singer said. He added, "Is this the future? Most definitely."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from The Associated Press and Reuters.


Words in This Story

access – n. permission to enter or use something

meme n. an idea, image, video, etc. that is spread very quickly on the internet

decade – n. a period of 10 years

manner – n. the way in which something is done

entertainment –n. a feeling of interest that comes from watching performances or playing games

definite – adj. something that is sure to happen