The motivations and minds behind hacking
By Carly Smith
Movies tell us that hackers sit in their parents’ basements alone among several computers. Pieces of hardware are strewn about, and monitors display layers of coding. The hacker’s fingers glide expertly across the keyboard as he snickers at others’ misfortune.
But that’s not quite the full picture.
George Hotz, a hacker known online as “geohot,” hacked his iPhone to record video before the iPhone had the ability to record video. Hacking mobile phones was originally illegal, but thanks to a recent change to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law allows anyone to remove limitations on any mobile phone. The “jailbreaks,” running any code on a device, allow users to hack the iPhone to run any applications on the phone even if they are not authorized by Apple.
Hotz then moved on to Sony’s PlayStation 3. He found the encryption keys to the PS3, meant to protect the PS3 from excessive modification, giving him full control of it. To Sony’s dismay, he released the exploit to the public, allowing people to run custom programs that Sony has not approved. Hotz said he had no intention of encouraging people to pirate games or software, but Sony does not feel the same way.
Sony is now suing Hotz for copyright infringement and violation of their terms of service of user agreement. The contract states, “You must not use any unauthorized hardware or software … or distribute unauthorized software or hardware … You must not modify or attempt to modify the online client…system, hardware, software … for any reason.”
Senior Corey Jeffers, president of IC Game Developers and computer information systems major, experienced hacking when someone took over his World of Warcraft account during his hiatus from the game. He said he finds Sony’s situation amusing.
“They were so adamant on advancing hardware, which led to this ability for their games to be copied,” he said in an email interview. “But the number of people that are hacking their PS3s are so minor, it won’t make a difference to the overall consumer. Hacking a console isn’t as easy as downloading pirated music.”
The DMCA may have legalized the hacking of mobile devices, but the same does not apply to video game consoles. That stops few from trying, though.
Brett Brandes, a senior at Ramapo High School, is an avid hacker. He modified his World of Warcraft account to give himself more currency in the game, which result in him receiving a two-day ban. Additionally, Brandes also hacks his PS3.
“It’s pretty much one of the easiest to use for us pirates,” he said in an e-mail interview. “It’s so adaptive to any format of files. Remember Sony’s advertising campaign, ‘The PS3 can do anything?’ If you know how to use it, they’re not kidding.”
Sony released a statement on the company’s blog Feb. 16 addressing pirated software on the PS3. Through this statement, they urged consumers to delete all unauthorized and pirated software. If consumers refused to comply, they would have “access to the PlayStation Network and access to Qriocity services through PlayStation 3 system terminated permanently,” according to the statement.
It’s still unclear how much of the system consumers own when they buy it. Because they paid for it, do they have full reign over what they do with it? The DMCA still says no, but not everyone agrees.
“I believe once the content is given up from the developers to the consumers, we have the right to do whatever we see fit with that game—everything but copy it for resale purposes,” Jeffers said. “But when hacking interferes with the fairness of play, there is an issue.”
Piracy is a clear problem. It is less widespread in the video game industry, but it still drops revenue significantly. Japan’s Computer Entertainment Suppliers Association conducted a study of 114 sites for illegal downloading across the world and concluded that piracy on the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PlayStation Portable between 2004 and 2009 cost them $41.7 billion.
Hacking isn’t so clear. It’s illegal, but not all hackers necessarily intend to hurt others’ gaming experience.
“I do believe hacking can be used for good,” Jeffers said. “Like finding loopholes in game play and security leaks. But more often than not, we hear about hacking as a form of cyber terrorism.”
At times, unnecessary restrictions in games lead people to hack those games, removing the limitations. Popular games such as Assassin’s Creed 2 and Silent Hunter 5 use a type of technology made to control access to content through the Internet. Called “always online Digital Rights Management,” it requires players to be connected to the Internet at all times in order to play even when they are not accessing online content, such as multi-player games hosted online. Yale Law and Technology, a website that students at Yale University use in various courses to discuss events related to what they are studying, explains that while the DRM allows companies to validate users and combat piracy, legitimate users who lack Internet service are hurt in the end.
Spore is a computer game that “required users to verify that their copy was legitimate each and every time they went online,” according to Yale Law and Technology. “Users became so frustrated with this highly restrictive DRM system that piracy became rampant, landing Spore at the top of the list of most pirated games for 2008.”
Sony is finally taking hacking seriously by employing new lawyers and an anti-piracy team, but are they willing to lose customers by pursuing hackers too strongly? Wired, a magazine that describes technology’s effects on culture, reports that Sony is aggressively trying to prevent future hacking by threatening to sue anyone who distributes the jailbreak code. They demanded Google to surrender the IP addresses of those who have viewed or commented about the jailbreak video on a private YouTube page.
Sony must learn how to control their system, but they also need to keep their consumers in mind. The customer might not always be right, but there’s something wrong when the customer needs to hack a system to get it to do something that it should’ve done before.
“Stopping hackers is possible, but not easy to do and, honestly, hardly worth their time,” Brandes said. “There’s no point in stopping what some of us can do to games nowadays.
Carly Smith is a sophomore journalism major who thinks you’re a total n00b. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.