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.

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