This week in the Social Links Center of Excellence Column, we’re looking at video game platforms as a great source to enrich OSINT investigations. Given that gaming has exploded in popularity, and with digital distributions becoming the norm (modern computers don’t even have CD drives anymore), platforms like Steam have turned into social networks. With that in mind, we’re sharing our insights on how investigators can leverage gaming platforms to gain more insights into suspects' digital footprints.
Let’s jump into it!
Steam: an Unconventional OSINT Source
Steam is a digital distribution platform developed by the Valve Corporation. With 120M monthly users (25M of whom are active at the same time during peak times), Steam has a catalog with over 50k games and also acts as a networking hub for players. At its core, it has all the elements of a social media platform, such as messaging, profiles, friends lists, forums, and communities. Considering these functionalities, experts can leverage the platform to conduct social media intelligence (SOCMINT).
So, why should investigators use Steam as a source? Basically, in today’s digital age, most people have some online footprint, and this is because many services are connected in one way or another. Open-source intelligence can leverage these connections to reveal a detailed profile of malicious actors and investigate crimes. Valve’s platform works exactly like any other social networking site, to the point that many people link their Steam accounts to their other online profiles.
Combating Cybercrime on Gaming Platforms
Like any social channel, gaming hubs are also full of illicit activity. Here, cyberbullying, account thefts, scams, and even the distribution of malicious software are becoming increasingly popular. In addition, security vulnerabilities risk exposing users to cyber threats, which can turn these platforms into potential hubs for extremism and anti-state rhetoric.
But there’s good news, too. Since services like Steam act like any other social media platform, investigators can extract data, potentially unlocking even the toughest cases. Experts can find aliases, phone numbers, email addresses, locations, and profile images through user profiles. Moreover, analyzing a user’s friends list can reveal connections, and their gaming history can provide additional leads for investigations, such as active online communities that focus on a specific game.
OSINT Techniques for Gaming Platforms
Let’s get practical and see how investigators can apply open-source intelligence techniques to extract information from a video game platform.
Target Identification. This involves diving into suspects' digital and real-world identities to get a comprehensive portrait. From gamer tags (gaming-specific usernames), investigators can find matches with other social media accounts, which can reveal the name of the person of interest.
Digital Footprint Tracing. This technique is all about scrutinizing the suspect's online activities, social media engagements, and virtual interactions to understand the person's digital presence clearly. Steam’s built-in community features (forums, messaging, etc.) can provide insights into the suspects' interests and activities.
Link Analysis. Since gaming platforms act like social networks, investigators can conduct deep searches to reveal concealed connections between individuals and companies. Anything from game reviews to community activities can expose hidden ties beyond the obvious.
Group Mapping. In gaming, there is a concept called a clan, a hierarchical structure of people who play a game together and act as a group. Interestingly, such organizations can function as digital criminal groups. When investigators look at malicious clans, they can identify critical roles such as leaders, lieutenants, and more to reveal communication patterns, decision-making processes, and power dynamics within a group.