- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The hugely popular augmented reality video game Pokemon GO, where users chase virtual creatures in the real world with handheld devices, is creating new security worries around the world, according to a State Department report.

“What has become one of the world’s most popular mobile applications over the course of the summer is now causing headaches among security personnel in both the private sector and governments around the world,” the report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) says, adding that the game has “attracted controversy for contributing to security incidents and becoming a nuisance at both public and private locations.”

The internal 5-page report, “Pokemon GO Away?” was produced by OSAC, a State Department-led group that assists American companies overseas. The game was released in July in the United States and 49 other countries in the Americas, Europe and Southeast Asia.

The game is not authorized in China based on military concerns that players will discover secret facilities. However, players in China can use the game close to borders of Hong Kong, Vietnam and Laos, the report said. Chinese press reports have described the game as a U.S. intelligence tool. “Don’t play Pokemon GO!!! It’s so the U.S. and Japan can explore China’s secret bases!” wrote one user on the microblog Weibo, Reuters reported.

Players use mobile devices connected to GPS to spot and capture the virtual creatures, and the game has been downloaded some 130 million times worldwide.

The report warns that points of interest used in the game, known as “Pokestops” or Gyms, can be used by nefarious actors to conduct covert surveillance.

“The private sector has expressed concerns with issues such as trespassing by the playing public and the insecure nature of employees using GPS locators that can be seen and tracked by potential malefactors, as well as an increased difficulty of discerning harmless players from potential surveillance threats,” the report said.

Security officials have discovered that foreign intelligence services or terrorists seeking to conduct surveillance would be distinct from Pokemon players by the use of cameras in handheld devices that are not required for game play.

“An individual actively catching a Pokemon will likely use two hands, one to hold the phone and one to play the game, and it should take no more than a minute or so,” the report said. “Even if using augmented reality, the phone should not be held or aimed above eye level and should be stationary for the duration of play.”

Security officials can request that the game’s stops be removed from play at locations such as cemeteries, government buildings, college campuses, places of worship, industrial sites or power plants, businesses and corporate campuses and other locations.

Gamemaker Niantic advises against sharing personal information from other players, and to play safely while not driving or cycling.

Several incidents have occurred involving Pokemon GO, including a July mugging attempt in Las Vegas when players who were carrying firearms ended up in a shootout. Also in July, a group of teens in Missouri staked out places where players would visit and robbed them.

Another security concern is that employees are using official phones to play the game, exposing the phones to attacks from malicious software.

“A number of private-sector organizations and government entities alike have banned such play, although the ability of organizations with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies to do the same remains nebulous,” the report said.

Germany’s Volkswagen banned its 70,000 employees from playing the game on company time. European aircraft manufacturer Airbus also warned employees that Pokemon activity at one plant had threatened security. Iran’s government also banned the game, citing unspecified security concerns, and Israel’s military banned play on official devices citing concerns about leaking sensitive information such as army base locations or photographs of military installations. Indonesia banned police and military personnel from playing the game on duty.

U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies could use the game to facilitate espionage efforts since spies posing as players can go near intelligence targets in the search for game creatures possibly without raising suspicions.

The Pentagon warned contractors last summer about its security concerns over the game and asked that several game points of interest be removed.

Army seeks better PR in Afghanistan

The Army last month issued a 33-page contract proposal seeking better communications to counteract the propaganda efforts of the Taliban and other insurgents.

“The information domain is a battlespace and it is one in which United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) must take aggressive actions to win the important battle of perception,” according to the Sept. 30 proposal from the U.S. Forces Afghanistan deputy chief of staff for communications.

The contract proposal is an indication that despite 15 years of military operations in Afghanistan, U.S. information warfare capabilities remain deficient. Friday marks the 15th anniversary of formal U.S. military operations in the conflict.

Communications programs and public affairs work are regarded as vital to gain support of the Afghan population that was identified as “the operational center of gravity” for communications efforts.

“In order to achieve success we must make better use of existing assets and bolster these with new capabilities to meet the challenges ahead,” the statement said.

“To date, the insurgents have undermined the credibility of USFOR-A, the international community, and government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through effective use of the information environment, albeit without a commensurate increase in their own credibility,” it stated. “This is a critical problem for USFOR-A, but the consequences for [the Afghan government] are even greater.”

A campaign is needed to “wrest the information initiative” from the insurgents.

The contractor will be based in Kabul and will seek to bolster the commanders’ strategic campaign objectives with outreach to Afghan audiences.

Work will also involve social media for the Army on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

Russian breakout from New START?

At Tuesday’s debate Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, praised the efforts of his running mate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to cut nuclear weapons in a deal with Russian in 2010.

“It was Hillary Clinton who worked with Russia on the New START Treaty to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile,” the Virginia Democrat said during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate.

But State Department statistics made public this week paint a different picture of Russian nuclear activities.

According to the latest figures from the State Department arms control bureau, Russia in the past six months added 61 new nuclear warheads to its stockpile, and since the treaty went into force in 2011, added a total of 259 warheads.

The Russians currently have deployed 1,796 warheads — 249 warheads above the treaty limit of 1,550 that must be reached by February 2018.

During the same period, the United States cut 433 warheads from its arsenal.

The State Department insists the increase is temporary and that Moscow will eventually reach to the treaty limit by early 2018.

But critics say the warhead buildup is just one indication that the Russians are planning to break out of the treaty as part of a major strategic and tactical nuclear arms buildup.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry called Mrs. Clinton’s Russia “reset” policy “a mistake and a failure.”

“The numbers are clear: While we cut our U.S. nuclear forces, the Russians have built more,” the Texas Republican said Tuesday. “This is on top of Russia’s massive 10-to-1 advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, multiple violations of the INF Treaty, continued aggression in Syria and Ukraine and its suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement.”

— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.


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