Prior to its invasion of the Soviet Union 81 years ago this month, the German military knew almost nothing about the Red Army’s T-34 medium tank. That vehicle, which became the most widely produced tank of the Second World War, played a crucial role in stopping the Nazi invaders.

Were online video game forums around in 1941, chances are high that some Soviet tanker might have spilled the beans on the tank’s capabilities. It was reported this month that leaked classified military documents from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were shared on an online forum for the free-to-play vehicle combat simulator War Thunder.

It included details of the DTC10-125, an anti-tank round fielded by modern Chinese tanks. Many of the details about the ordnance were reportedly already well known, yet this was the first time that authenticating documentation had been seen outside of China.

According to video game news site Polygon, there had been an online debate that turned heated, and a gamer opted to prove a point by posting the classified documents about the round.

(Wargaming) History Repeats Itself

This isn’t the first time that classified details about tanks that are currently in service around the world have been posted to the War Thunder forums. Last July, an online gamer – who also happened to be a British tank commander – released specifications about the British Army’s Challenger 2 tank.

The gamer/tanker had gotten a bit fired up that the specifications for the British main battle tank (MBT) were incorrect in Gaijin Entertainment’s free online vehicle simulation. He subsequently posted information from the “Challenger 2 Army Equipment Support Publication,” which was essentially the tank’s “user manual.” In that particular case, the images were heavily redacted, yet still carried a “UK Restricted” label.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) eventually responded and confirmed that the manual was in fact classified material.

It was hardly an isolated event on the War Thunder forums. In addition to the leak of the recent post that shared a bit too much about the Chinese anti-tank round, last December another gamer shared part of a manual for the French-made Leclerc MBT.

Improving the Game

As ClearanceJobs.com has previously reported, there are several reasons for why someone would share classified information. This is explained as “MICE” – as in “Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego.” In the case of the gamers sharing these critical details, it certainly wasn’t done for the money, for ideology, or even due to compromise. It does seem to be a case of ego, where the respective gamers sought to prove they were more knowledgeable on an issue.

The Challenger tank commander reportedly shared the information not to prove a point, but rather because he wanted to improve the gaming experience. The game had already won numerous accolades for its realism, and apparently, the commander felt he could make it even better. That might still fall into the category of “Ego,” even if it doesn’t make it any better.

Serious Threat?

To date, much of the information that has been shared hasn’t seemed to have seriously compromised those who are “work” in the tanks, and might someday roll into combat.

“While the exposure was embarrassing it is hard to assess if it poses an actual threat,” explained technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “The Chinese government is likely displeased and I expect that intelligence agencies of various kinds are examining the details. But whether it will lead to redesigns of the weapon or defensive technologies is anyone’s guess.”

Given the popularity of some military-based games – including tank and flight simulators – it is likely there will be future sharing of classified details for the same reasons. It is easier than ever to snap photos with a smartphone, and then quickly post those images online for the world to see.

“Finding ways to effectively stem this sort of information leak seem elusive without knowing just how the information escaped classification,” King told ClearanceJobs. “The essentially anonymous structure of the Internet creates an almost limitless number of hidey holes for bad actors.”

This information on the tanks and weapons is hardly on the scale of the Pentagon Papers, but it does raise a concern about how classified information could find its way to the public.

“Some of this information may also have been ‘hiding in broad daylight’ in unclassified research papers or other publicly available documents,” King continued. “Given the circumstances and classified nature of the information, even if the source or leaker re identified it seems unlikely that anyone outside security agencies in China or elsewhere will ever know about it.”

 

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.