Posts Tagged‘piracy’

BBC Derp

The BBC Thinks all VPN Users are Pirates.

If you want Netflix in Australia there’s really only one way to do it: get yourself a VPN with an endpoint in the states. That’s not an entirely difficult process, indeed many of my less tech savvy friends have managed to accomplish it without any panicked phone calls to me. The legality of doing that is something I’m not qualified to get into but since there hasn’t been a massive arrest spree of nefarious VPN users I can’t imagine it’s far outside the bounds of law. Indeed you couldn’t really do that unless you also cracked down on the more legitimate users of VPN services, like businesses and those with regulatory commitments around protecting customer data. However if you’d ask the BBC users of VPNs are nothing but dirty pirates and it’s our ISP’s job to snoop on them.

BBC Derp

In a submission to the Australian Government, presumably under the larger anti-piracy campaign that Brandis is heading, the BBC makes a whole list of suggestions as to how they should go about combating Australia’s voracious appetite for purloined content. Among the numerous points is the notion that a lot of pirates now use a VPN to hide their nefarious activities. In the BBC’s world ISPs would take this as a kind of black flag, signalling that any heavy VPN user was likely also engaging in copyright infringement. They’d then be subject to the woeful idea of having their Internet slowed down or cut off, presumably if they couldn’t somehow prove that it was legitimate. Even though they go on to talk about false positives the ideas they discuss in their submission are fucking atrocious and I hope they never see the light of day.

I have the rather fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) ability of being able to do my work from almost anywhere I choose, including my home. This does mean that I have to VPN back into the mothership in order to get access to my email, chat and all other corporate resources which can’t be made available over the regular Internet. Since I do a lot of this at home under the BBC’s suggestion I’d probably be flagged as a potential pirate and be subject to measures to curb my behaviour. Needless to say I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this either so there’s vast potential for numerous false positives to spring up under this system.

Worse still all of those proposed measures fall on the ISP’s shoulders to design, implement and enforce. Not only would this put an undue burden on them, which they’d instantly pass onto us in the form of increased prices, it would also make them culpable when an infringing user figured out how to defeat their monitoring system. Now everyone knows that it doesn’t take long for people to circumvent these systems which, again, increases pressure on the ISPs to implement even more invasive and draconian systems. It’s a slippery slope that we really shouldn’t be going down.

Instead of constantly looking towards the stick as the solution to Australia’s piracy woes it’s time for companies, and the Australian government, to start looking at the carrot. Start looking at incentives for rights holders to license content in Australia or mandating that we get the same content at the same time for the same price as it is elsewhere. The numerous Netflix users in Australia shows there’s demand for such a service, we just need it to match the same criteria that customers overseas expect. Once we get that I’m sure you’ll see a massive reduction in the amount of piracy in Australia, coupled with the increase in sales that the right’s holders seem so desperate to protect.

Cost of a movie by country

Are We Really Surprised by Australian’s Being Pirates?

Australia is an incredibly strong country economically being ranked as the 12th largest by GDP of all countries in the world. When you then consider that our population is a fraction of that of many countries that are above us (Canada is the closest in size and is in 11th spot with a population about 50% bigger than ours) it means that, on average, Australians are more wealthy than their global counterparts. This is somewhat reflected in the price we pay for certain things however it doesn’t take a lot of effort to show that we pay more than you’d expect for many goods and services. The most notable being media as we lack any of the revolutionary services that drive their prices down (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) or any viable alternatives. It gets even worse though as it seems we also pay more just to go to the cinema.

Cost of a movie by country

 

The graphic above shows that Australia, along with a few other developed nations, pay an extraordinary amount more than others do when the costs are normalized. The differences between the lowest and the highest aren’t exactly huge, you’re looking at a spread of about $15 from the cheapest to the most expensive, however this is yet another indication of just how much more Australia pays for its media than anyone else does. In essence we’re paying something on the order of 25%~50% more for the same product yet the excuses that the industry once relied on, that Australia is “really far away”, don’t really hold water anymore.

It should come as little surprise then that Australians are then far more likely to pirate than any other developed country, sometimes representing up to almost 20% of new release piracy. There have been some inroads made into attempting to reduce this number, with a few stations “fast-tracking” episodes (although they still usually carry a delay) or giving users access to an online option, however the former doesn’t solve the problem entirely and the latter was unfortunately repealed. The hunger for the media is there it’s just that a reasonably priced option has failed to materialize for Australian users (and if you mention Quickflix I’ll gut you) which has led to these dramatic figures.

Now I’d be entirely happy with doing the slightly dodgy and getting myself a Netflix or Hulu account via a VPN or geo-unblocking service however my bandwidth isn’t up to the task of streaming media at 720p. Sure it could probably do a lower resolution but I didn’t invest as much as I did in my entire home theatre system to have it operate at a sub-par level. This issue was supposed to go away with the NBN being just around the corner but I literally have no idea when that might be coming nor what incarnation of it I will end up getting. So it seems that, at least for now, I’m stuck in digital limbo where I either fall to piracy or being gouged repeatedly.

Neither of these issues are beyond fixing and indeed it’s been shown that once a reasonably priced alternative becomes available people ditch piracy in a heartbeat. Heck I know that for me once Steam became widely available my game spend increased dramatically, especially after I found sites like DLcompare. I can assure you that the same will happen once a media based alternative comes to Australia and I’m not the only one who has the disposable income to support it.

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Legitimate Piracy.

If you were to plot my rate of piracy related activities over time it’d show a direct negative correlation to my salary. My appetite for software, games and music hasn’t really changed over the years but as my income has grown I found myself preferring to pay for something if I can, especially now that many services out compete the pirated product in terms of features and convenience. I’d be lying if I said guilt wasn’t part of it too as whilst I didn’t have the money to give back at the height of my piracy days I feel like I’m beginning to make up for it. Still I constantly find situations where I need to turn to less than legal avenues to get a product I want, usually one I’ve purchased anyway.

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Indeed this happened quite recently with my purchase of the new Daft Punk album. My long time Twitter followers will tell you that I went rather…hyperbolic when I heard their new album was due out this year and I make no secret of the fact that they’re my favourite band, bar none. Of course that translates to me wanting to give them as much of my money as I can and so I plonked down the requisite $50 preorder for the vinyl version of their album (mostly as a talking piece) which also included a digital download of their album. Now considering that it was going to be available everywhere digitally on day 1 I figured I’d get an email with the code in it and the album would take its merry time getting here.

I received no such email.

My copy of Random Access Memories showed up yesterday, almost a week after the official launch date and nearly two weeks after Daft Punk made it available for streaming through iTunes. I had a couple options available to me at this point: I could simply wait until mine arrived, listen to a stream (requiring an iTunes install, something I don’t want to do) or find another way. My other way was to find an upload on Grooveshark, which was obviously not authorized and was taken down a day later. I got to hear the album at roughly the same time as everyone else though which was basically all I wanted but I couldn’t help but feel like I had been cheated somewhat just because I tried to support the artists as much as I could.

I felt no guilt going to slightly nefarious sources to get my Daft Punk fix but honestly I shouldn’t have had to. There’s nothing special about the code they sent me that requires it to be physical and it’s not like emailing people who preordered a code to plug into a website is an unsolved problem either. The pirates in this instance were making up for the failings of others, providing a service to everyone regardless of whether they’d made the purchase or not. Now that I’ve got my real copy I have no need for it but it still gets to me that they’re providing a valuable service, one that I didn’t have to pay them for.

Sure in the larger scheme of things its a small gripe but it’s things like this that highlight the reason that piracy exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come. The effort required to fix them is quite trivial since the pirates don’t do this as their full time job and the companies providing the service just need to hurry up and out compete them. If Valve can get digital distribution right then I see no reason why others can’t, but until then I’ll still have to rely on my slightly nefarious friends to make up for their failings.

Game of Thrones

Piracy Doesn’t Harm Sales? Fancy That…

We Australians do love to pirate things. Those of us who live here can tell you why: we’re either gouged extensively on the same products sold overseas or we’re subject to incredible delays. The Internet has helped to remedy both these things however with the former being solved by having access to the same shops that everyone else does and the latter eliminating most long delays. Still, even though we’ve come this far, we’re still subject to the same scarcity that just doesn’t need to exist with certain goods, especially ones that can be purely digital.

Our tendency towards piracy hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rights holders overseas but all they’ve done in response is send scorn over our way. There’s been a couple shining examples of what they should do, like the ABC offering episodes of Dr. Who on iView before it shows on TV (that’s no more for this season, unfortunately), but few seem to be following their lead. It seems that, at least for the near future, Australia will be viewed as nothing more than a pirate haven, a drain on the creative world that does nothing but take.

Or will it?

Game of Thrones

Any avid TV watcher will be aware of the blockbuster series Game of Thrones which just aired episode one of season 3. Whilst the numbers aren’t in yet it’s shaping up to be the most pirated show ever yet again with Australia making up a decent portion of that. You would think then that its publishers would be aghast at these numbers as the current executive thinking is that every download is somehow a missed sale, robbing them of untold millions that should be in their pockets. However an interview with HBO’s President of Programming Michael Lombardo reveals that they’re doing just fine in spite of it and in fact are kind of flattered by it:

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo told EW. “[Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network.”

Last month Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister in the show, said that although people watch the show online, he hoped they would still go out and buy the DVD or Blu-ray. And guess what? According to HBO, they do.

“The demand is there,” Lombardo said. “And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales.”

I think you could knock me over with a feather after I read that.

There’s been a lot of research done into whether or not piracy, with respect to the online kind, is an overall negative influence on creative industries like TV, music and video games. Preliminary studies have shown that music pirates tend to spend much more than their non-pirating counter parts and that appears to extend to other industries. Lombardo’s revelation that the rampant piracy experienced by their flagship series didn’t hurt their DVD sales fits in with this idea as well and it’s incredibly gratifying to see people at the executive finally admitting that piracy isn’t as big of an issue as they’ve made it out to be. Of course he’s well aware that such a position isn’t popular, even within his own company, but at least the seeds of dissent are starting to take root and hopefully it will continue on from there.

History has shown that attempting to eliminate piracy is a fool’s errand and the only reliable way to combat it is to provide a product that is competitive to what they offer. Valve, Netflix et. al. saw this for their respective industries and their success is a testament to the fact that people will pay good money once the price is set at the right point. Companies who attempt to fight this are going to find themselves routinely outclassed by these upstarts and it’ll only be a matter of time before they find themselves on the wrong side of a bankruptcy hearing. So other executives should take note of Lombardo’s stance and consider taking the same view of their own right’s portfolios.

 

TV On The Internet a Fad? Son, I’m Going to Take That Crack Pipe.

I learnt a long time ago that one of the biggest factors in pricing something, especially in the high tech industry, is convenience. For someone who was always a do-it-yourself-er the notion was pretty foreign to me, I mean why would I spend the extra dollars to  have something done for me when I was equally capable of doing it myself? Of course the second I switched from being a salaried employee to a contractor who’s time is billed in hours my equations for determinting something’s value changed drastically and I begun to appreciate being able to pay to get something done rather than having to spend my precious time on it myself.

The convenience factor is what has driven me to try and find some kind of TV solution akin to those that are available in the USA. Unfortunately the only thing that comes close are the less than legal alternatives which is a right shame as I would gladly pay the going rate to get the same service here in Australia. I’m not alone in this regard either as many Australians turn to alternative methods in order to get their fix of their favorite shows. What this says to me is that teh future of TV is definitely moving towards being a more on demand service like those provided by Netflix and Hulu and less like traditional TV channels.

Some industry executives would disagree with me on that point, to the point of saying that watching TV on the Internet is nothing short of a fad that will eventually pass. There’s been a couple clarifications to that post since it first went live but the sentiment remains that they believe people who abandon their cable subscriptions, “cable cutters” as it were, are in the minority and once economic conditions improve they’ll be back again. I can understand the reasoning behind a cable exec taking this kind of position, but it’s woefully misguided.

For starters Netflix alone counts for around a third of peak bandwidth usage in the USA.  To put this in perspective that’s double all BitTorrent traffic and triple YouTube, both considered to be hives of piracy among the cable cartels. This is in conjunction with the fact that people are using their Xboxs to watch movies and listen to music more than they’re using them to play games, usually through online services. Taking all of this into consideration you’d be mad to think that the future is still in traditional pay TV services as there’s a very clear trend towards on-demand media, provided through your local Internet connection, is what customers are looking for.

There’s two reasons to explain why cable companies are thinking this way. The first, and least likely, is that they’re simply unaware of the current trends in the media market space. This is not entirely impossible as there have been a few examples in recent times (BlockBuster being the first that comes to mind) who simply failed to recognise where the market was moving and paid the ultimate price for it in the end. The far more likely reason is simple bravado as the cable companies can’t really take the stand and say that they’re aware of the changing market demands but will do nothing about it. No for them its best, at least in the short term, to write off the phenomena completely. In the long term of course this tactic won’t work, but I get the feeling none of them are playing a particularly long game at this point.

As I’ve said many times before media companies and rights holders have fought tooth and nail against every technological advancement for the past century and the only constant in every one of them is that in the end the technology won out. Eventually these companies will have to wake up to the reality that their outdated business models don’t fit into the current market and they’ll either have to adapt or die.

Have Money, Want Content, Will Spend.

I spent the better part of my youth pirating nearly every bit of software I wanted. It’s not that I was doing it on principle, no it was more that I didn’t have the cash required to fuel my insane desire for the latest computer hardware, software and everything else that I had my eye on back then. Sure you can argue that I should have just gone without instead of pirating but in the end they were never going to get money from me anyway. For those software and games developers that did make a decent product they’ve since received a well paying customer in the form of my current self who spends lavishly on collector’s editions and any software that he needs.

One area I’ve never paid a dime for (although I happily would, as I’ll explain later) is TV shows. I was a pretty big TV watcher as a kid, even going to the point of recording shows that I couldn’t watch in the morning (because I had to catch the bus) so that I could watch them in the afternoon. As I discovered the wonders of playing video on your PC I started to consume most of my media through there as it was just so much more convenient than waiting for a particular show to come on at a certain time. Australia is also quite atrocious for getting new shows as they’re released, usually coming to our shores months after their release to the rest of the world, if they do at all. However whilst I might be able to get everything for free it’s still somewhat of an inconvienence, especially when I see a service like Steam that has no replica in TV in Australia.

It’s not like these services don’t exist either. The USA has things like Netflix and Hulu that stream TV shows to users and the latter will even do so free of charge. From a technical standpoint there’s no reason why these services can’t work anywhere in the world, they’re just another set of packets travelling alongside all the others. However both of those services employ heavy geo-fencing, the process by which anyone connecting to it is identified by region and, should they be outside the USA, be blocked from viewing the content. Primarily this is because of licensing agreements that they have with the content providers who want to control which content goes where. For places like Australia however this just leads to people pirating the content instead of watching it on TV or buying it in stores, something I’m sure they’re not entirely happy about.

This issue came up recently when a bunch of ISPs got together and proposed a new system to deal with copyright infringement. On the surface it looked like long time supporters of privacy were caving under pressure from rights holders but it’s actually anything but. More its an idea to make the discovery process more open and focuses on educating the end users rather than punishing them. Whilst I don’t like the system proposed I did like the fact that they recognised rights holders needed to do a better job of providing content to Australia residents. The fact of the matter is many turn to piracy for the simple reason that they simply can’t get it anywhere else. A service like Hulu in Australia would be wildly popular and would be as good for the rights holders as Steam was for the games industry.

Steam has shown that convenience and service are what drive people to piracy, not strictly price. Of course Steam’s regular fire sales have made sure that people part with more cash than they usually would but the fact is that they deliver a product that’s on the same level of convenience (sometimes better) than the pirates do. Right now rights holders are still delivering products that are less convenient (and sometimes, even worse overall) and so the piracy option is far more attractive. I know this is asking a lot of an industry that’s feared technology for the better part of a century but in the end the problem doesn’t lie with the pirates, it lies with them. 

Playstations, Piracy and Puerility.

Sony really has no tolerance when it comes to piracy on their systems. Whilst in the past they were mostly disinterested (since there was little they could do about it) their reaction to the current state of piracy on the Playstation 3 has been nothing short of full fledged war on those who’d seek to get something for nothing. Still it seems like their efforts might be misplaced as the damage has already been done and any methods taken to try and contain it merely serve as a Streisand Effect, further publicising the efforts of those they’d seek to contain. Still for all the hubbub that’s going on I personally believe that it’s a storm in a teacup, with both sides making a bigger deal of this than it really is.

The roots of this entire debacle can be traced back to one curious hacker, Geohot. Just on a year ago he released details of a hack that basically enabled him full control over the PS3 when it was in OtherOS mode, opening the door for much better homebrew applications that could take full advantage of the PS3’s power. Sony, to their discredit, overreacted to this by removing OtherOS as a feature in the next update. In all honesty Geohot’s initial hack was barely a threat to anyone as it required a very high level of knowledge and the guts to crack open your PS3 and solder switches across vital components. Removing said feature then triggered many other hacker groups to start having a shot at breaking open the PS3, and 8 month’s later we saw the rise of the PS3 jailbreaks.

Most recently however the whole scene went into overdrive after the hacker team fail0verflow released details on how to recover many of the private keys that Sony uses to verify game discs and other critical GameOS functions. It didn’t take too long after that for Geohot to release the root key which, in essence, cracked the entire system wide open. Whilst I’ve yet to dive into the nitty gritty myself it would seem that this round of hacks requires no crazy dongles or anything that’s above the level of the average Windows user. A quick look over some of my old hacking haunts shows there’s quite a spread of tools available, even a nifty little program that can point your PS3 to a share where you can store all your games, neat. Sony has been quick to come down on these hacks and the hackers have been even quicker in response, showing that the arms race Sony is playing against the masses will never be won.

The thing is though that whilst this enables piracy on a console that has been immune to it for the majority of its life it’s far from being the catastrophe that Sony seems to think it will be. The PC and the Xbox have both suffered from rampant piracy from their earliest days and the industry continues to flourish in spite of them. The fact is that anyone who would be solely pirating games isn’t a lost customer in the first place and many of them would’ve steered clear of the PS3 because of that. Heck even after I modded my Xbox so I could play some “backed up” games I ended up reverting it back simply because I wanted to play online and I didn’t play any of those games for longer than an hour. The simple fact is that a game I’m not willing to part with the money for is a game I wouldn’t play anyway, and I’m sure that’s common across most console owners.

Piracy is often the excuse used for all sorts of draconian measures that publishers use to try and protect their investments. Time and time again however it has been shown that users who can’t pirate aren’t instantly converted into paying customers, they simply do without and move onto another source of free entertainment. Piracy, on the surface at least, appears to be a much worse problem than it actually is and whilst the PS3 may now be wide open for all those who want to exploit it I doubt we’ll see publishers pulling releases for the platform any time soon. Personally I’d love to be able to rip my library of games to a hard drive so I could have them all on tap whenever I wanted them, but with Sony’s rampant anti-piracy stance it looks like I’ll have to forgo that dream until I don’t want to use my PS3 online anymore.

And I don’t think that’s going to be any time soon, either.

The PS3 Hack: Sony’s Folly and the Pirate’s Dream.

Nearly every device that happens to make its way into my home ends up being modified in some not-intended-by-the-manufacturer way. Usually this is because there’s some cool feature I can unlock by doing so and the process of modifying the device is usually quite enjoyable, for an engineer like myself at least. There are of course two notable exceptions that have managed to avoid the mod stick and they are my PlayStation 3 and my iPhone. Both of them were expensive pieces of electronics to purchase and whilst the former has long been out of warrenty the iPhone is still good for another 8 months. Additionally I haven’t had a compelling reason to jailbreak the iPhone yet and probably won’t since I’ll be fiddling around with at least 2 other handsets very soon.

The PlayStation on the other hand has been immune to any attempts to modify it for a long time. You could up the hard drive size (with instructions directly from Sony) and even run some homebrew in the form of Blu-ray Disc Java that allowed people to use emulators for a short time. Sony eventually clamped down on it limiting the functionality only to actual Blu-ray discs but you can still run the emulators should you have the inclination to burn a disc for the experience. Such behaviour is typical for any company wanting to protect their systems from piracy as these small chinks in their armour eventually lead to cracking the system wide open, but it was still a long time before we heard anything about the PS3.

Early in the year we saw the first steps towards a full blown system hack of the PS3 in the form of an incredibly complicated bus glitching memory allocation attack from GeoHot, the prolific iPhone hacker. At the time I dismissed the ideaof pirating PS3 games as doing so would be quite an extravagance considering the cost of discs, burners and bandwidth. In the time between then and now my ISP upped my cap not once, but twice to a grand total of 240GB/month for the exact same price I was paying before. Suddenly the notion of downloading a PS3 game didn’t seem like such a waste of bandwidth, in fact I’d be struggling to use such an immense amount of data without downloading a few massive files like Blu-ray disc copies.

However such an idea was still curtailed by the fact that there wasn’t any way to actually backup or play backed up games on the PS3. Sony managed to get a lot of people off side when they removed the Other OS functionality triggering GeoHot to work towards fully cracking open the system (and thus enabling the piracy nightmare that Sony had thusfar avoided) but many months passed and we heard nothing from the hacking scene. It seemed that the PS3 would be one of the first platforms to resist all attempts to crack into it.

That was until just recently.

The hack was met with a healthy dose of skepticism when it was first shown by the guys over at OzModChips and rightly so, the system has been unhackable for quite some time and every hack that we’d seen so far turned out to be fake. Still they assured us it was real and further reports showed that it in fact was the first legitimate hack of the PS3 to make prime time. The fact that it required no physical modifications to the console made everyone even more curious as to how the hack actually worked as just plugging in an USB stick seemed far too easy.

As it turns out whilst it isn’t a direct clone of the JIG module used to enable the service mode of the PS3 it does in fact contain parts of the JIG code in order to enable the hack. The device itself, whilst looking like a USB stick, is in fact just a USB controller board. Plugging this into your PS3 and then powering it will first establish a connection to your console. Shortly after it begins to load the JIG code which then enables it to load a custom application under the games menu part of the XMB. Once this has been installed you can then rip games to the internal hard drive or an USB storage device. This is exactly what Sony had been fighting against for a long time and now the walls that once stood so tall are crumbling underneath them.

Sony’s initial volley against this hack is to stop the distribution of the devices in Australia where thanks to a small loop hole in the law such devices are in fact legal. There are a multitude of them already out in the wild and Sony has picked up on this and begun banning those who are using the device. No doubt the next firmware release will stop this hack in its tracks and the game of cat and mouse that Sony has been playing with the PSP will begin in earnest on the PS3. I believe that this hack shows a missed opportunity for Sony, one that would’ve struck a major blow against the true pirates whilst rewarding their real customers.

To me: a loyal Sony fan, avid gamer and part time device tinkerer I’ve always wanted to have my large trove of games available on a hard drive, just like I do on my PC. Whilst the beginnings of this are starting to show with online stores like the Xbox Marketplace and the Playstation Network store they still charge me for the privilege of doing the format shiftingfor me. I’d happily pay for a backup application and/or emulator in order to cover for the costs of development and would even accept DRM in the form similar to that of what Steam has so that I could keep my purchases safe on an external drive. This also has the side effect of dismissing the backup excuse that is often used to legitimize the hacks used to pirate games in the first place. Sony could then argue their point from a moral high ground, although the homebrew scene would probably still kick up a stink.

As always it comes down to an argument of perceived value. The product being provided by this hack is perceived as being a higher value than the legitimate product provided by Sony. Indeed it is as it allows you to back up your original media and keep them in storage whilst you reap the benefits of faster game load times and the knowledge that should the media fail you have a backup ready to go. It’s quite possible that the next generation of consoles will end up being entirely digital but until then we’ll be privvy to these games of cat and mouse that the console giants play with the hackers and history shows that they’ll always end up being the loser.

Are Device Hackers Worth This Much Effort?

I readily admit that I’m a bit of a tinkerer. There’s something really enjoyable about taking something you bought and squeezing extra functionality out of it, especially if it unlocks something that no product currently fits. I remember after having my PlayStation Portable for a while that I heard of the many great things that could be done with it, so I set out to mod it. A couple days later I had it streaming live video from my PC over our wireless network which was quite an impressive feat back in those days. Today the device hacker scene is alive and well on almost any platform that can be exploited leading to a game of cat and mouse between the creators of said devices and those who would seek to exploit them.

Now I’m not going to be naive and pretend like there aren’t nefarious motives behind parts of the hacking scene. Indeed the main motivator for quite a lot of hacks that enable people to unlock certain bits of functionality is usually done in aid of pirating legitimate software. In fact for the Xbox 360 the only hack available is arguably only for pirating software, as Microsoft’s hard line on banning users who do it shows. Still the never ending game of cat and mouse that companies play with the recreational hacking crowd doesn’t appear to make much fiscal sense on the surface as the man hours required to try and protect such systems always appear to fail with little more than a couple weeks from a few skilled individuals.

Probably one of the platforms where this kind of behaviour is almost encouraged would be Android. For starters the entire system is open source so if you were so inclined you could write custom packages for it to unlock almost any functionality you wanted. It also seems that the vast majority of Android handset manufacturers only put mild roadblocks in the way of those seeking to gain root level privileges on the devices, akin to the CD in the drive checks of games of yesteryear. Still it seems that the trend may be shifting somewhat with the recent Droid X, touted as the best Android phone to date, employing some rather drastic moves to prevent end users from tampering with it:

Motorola has apparently locked down the phone to the point where any modification attempts — including “rooting” the phone to install unauthorized apps, or changing its firmware — could render it completely inoperable (or “bricked”). The only way to fix it is to return the phone to Motorola, reports the Android fansite MyDroidWorld.

The company is using a technology called eFuseto secure the device. It runs when the phone boots up, and it checks to make sure that the phone’s firmware, kernel information, and bootloader are legit before it actually lets you use the device. Here’s MyDroidWorld’s explanation:

If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to “blow the fuse” or “trip the fuse”. This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.

Us device hackers know the risks when we go into them, it’s part of the fun! I remember when I was hacking my PSP for the first time I had to find files from a not-so-trustworthy source, a random I met on an IRC channel. Knowing fully well I could end up with a $400 paperweight I went ahead anyway and, luckily enough for me, it worked. However the trend towards vendors actively seeking to brick the phones should the user try to tamper with them feels like a kick in the teeth to me. Realistically it’s my hardware and what I do with it is my business and putting barriers in place just seems like a waste of both our time.

The argument can be made that they don’t want the average user attempting to do these kinds of things with their devices. There’s some logic to that as stopping the casual hacking crowd means that a good majority of the other nefarious activities will be thwarted as well. Additionally in this day and age the originators of the hack usually make it exceptionally easy to use like the Twilight Hackfor the Nintendo Wii which merely requires loading a save game, something everyone is capable of. Still most users are bright enough to know that what they’re doing is akin to taking a chainsaw to their device, something which the manufacturer will likely not appreciate nor cover under warranty.

Coming back to the piracy issue I still feel that this comes down to the perceived¹ value that customers are placing in the products being offered. The customers who are pirating your product aren’t the kind who are just going to up and pay for it if they can’t get it for free. Really you should be looking back on yourself to see why they’re pirating it as if it’s wildly successful with the pirates but not with legit customers it’s quite possible your product is priced too high or the channels you’re offering it through are too restrictive. I’ve been researching these markets for months now and it seems no matter how hard you try to ensure no one pirates your product you only end up hurting your paying customers, driving even more of them to those dastardly corners of the Internet where they pilfer your product for free.

In my mind there’s no question that the steps taken to thwart these would be hackers is not worth the time that’s put into them. For a platform like Android I actually believe these kinds of people actually help a great deal with the whole ecosystem of the platform, ensuring that power users get what they want whilst everyday users get dedicated experts to call upon at no cost to the original company. Who knows maybe I’ll change my tune when I start trying to extract money from the markets based on these platforms but if I do feel free to point at this post and lambast me for being an idiot, as I’ll be far too detached from reality at that point ;)

¹I have a habit of re-reading my old posts when I link to them and just noticed that I praised Ubisoft for taking the right direction when trying to combat pirates. After their last DRM farce I can’t really support them anymore, but the ideas in that post remain solid (I.E. increasing value with things that can’t be pirated).

A Hacked PS3 Anyone? Bueller?

Take any piece of modern hardware and guaranteed its locked down in one way or another to make sure it’s not used in a way that the vendor didn’t intend, expect or desire. Take Apple for example, they strictly control what can and can’t be run on their entire range of hardware products to make sure that their brand name isn’t tarnished (and they fight fervently when there’s even the slight hint that it might). Such restrictions give rise to the hacker community dedicated to unlocking the full potential of the hardware. To them it’s not so much the potential of having unrestricted access, more it is about the challenge that is presented with these restrictions and finding that loophole that lets them circumvent it.

To date nearly every major console and handled game device had been hacked into in at least some form. A couple days ago however the king of the unhackable hill, the Playstation 3, has apparently fallen from its perch:

I have read/write access to the entire system memory, and HV level access to the processor. In other words, I have hacked the PS3. The rest is just software. And reversing. I have a lot of reversing ahead of me, as I now have dumps of LV0 and LV1. I’ve also dumped the NAND without removing it or a modchip.

3 years, 2 months, 11 days…thats a pretty secure system

Took 5 weeks, 3 in Boston, 2 here, very simple hardware cleverly applied, and some not so simple software.

As noted in the quote above its been quite a long time coming for such a hack to appear. So long in fact that I doubted that it was legitimate considering that the site itself is extremely new (well under a month) and was proclaiming something that had been tried before and failed spectacularly. My mind was changed when I checked out who the hacker was, George Hotz, who’s claim to fame before his PS3 shenanigans was unlocking the iPhone. So his street cred checks out.

I put off posting about this for a couple days so I could glean a little bit more info about the whole thing before posting about it. The hack itself doesn’t appear to be too complicated however what is going to be complicated is making anything of it. Whilst the original “phat” PS3s were quite capable of running Linux (albeit quite horribly, I don’t even bother with my install anymore) many of the higher level functions, like access to the full set of GPU instructions and the SPEs, was disabled. This meant that anything running on the PS3 that wasn’t sanctioned by Sony was inherently crippled. Getting access to these extra bits of functionality would make allow people to create games without forking over for Sony’s developer kit ($10,000 FYI). You can see why they tried so hard to keep people from doing such a thing.

There’s also the darker side to this hack appearing: piracy. Sure there are legitimate reasons for blowing open access to a console like this but for the most part any successful cracking of a game console has ultimately lead to a rampant piracy scene. Whilst it would be difficult to judge the actual financial damage to Sony and the publishers who have games on the PS3 it would still be there, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it would be cited as a reason for any bad financial quarters. GeoHot’s hack is a far cry from this however, so there’s still a long time before any real piracy scene appears for the PS3.

Still I can’t help but wonder, will anyone really bother? A typical game on the PS3 can be anywhere from 10GB to 25GB something which, especially in Australia, would be rather hard to swallow when your download cap is a mere 75GB such as mine. Additionally with many games appearing cross platform you’re really only going to be pirating the exclusives and if you bought a PS3 its not really worth your trouble just to pirate those. Would you really spend the cash for a blu-ray burner, discs and bandwidth in order to play a few games a year? I’m guessing not.

So whilst I was initially excited at the prospect of some intrepid hacker finally cracking the PS3 code it wore off pretty quickly. With my secret addiction to collector’s editions that have things you can’t pirate still running rampant I have no inclination to pirate games on my PS3, nor do I have a need for yet another computer in my house (there’s 5 in the same room as the PS3, I’ll be damned if I need the PS3 to do their jobs). With this hack taking so long to come out I can’t help but feel that the majority of PS3 owners are in the same boat, happily residing themselves to never thinking about home brew or piracy on the PS3.

Still I’ve been wrong before so I’ll be watching the developments pretty closely. It certaintly has made for interesting reading at the very least :)