Updated Sony has set the lawyers on hackers who figured out a way to run unsigned code on PlayStation 3 consoles without the use of a dongle.
The hack, made possible by the discovery of the private key Sony used to sign its software, was demonstrated by a group called fail0verflow at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin late last month.
Sloppy cryptography by Sony meant anyone might be able to bypass copyright controls and sign their own code so that it ran on the console.
fail0verflow only published a video demonstration. It withheld the details of Sony's encryption key. The group has issued a statement explaining that it was motivated solely by the desire to restore the ability to run Linux or other alternative operating systems on the console. It condemned video game piracy.
Another hacker, George Hotz (AKA geohot), released modified firmware based on Sony's formerly secret key, allowing enthusiasts to run home-brewed software on the console. Hotz, the first hacker to successfully jailbreak the iPhone, pulled off the hack using a combination of hardware and software hacks, as explained in our earlier story here.
Although the initial application of the hack was to allow enthusiasts to run Linux on consoles, the same technique might also be applied to allow pirated games to run on the console, hence Sony's decision to call in its lawyers. Sony accuses both fail0verflow and geohot of copyright infringement and computer fraud.
The consumer electronics giant is seeking a restraining order against the publication of the code, which it claims has already facilitated copyright control circumvention and piracy.
Hotz1, 21, told the BBC that Sony's legal offensive was on a hiding to nothing. "I have spoken with legal counsel and I feel comfortable that Sony's action against me doesn't have any basis," he said.
fail0verflow's website has been stripped down overnight to feature only a brief message saying "Sony sued us" alongside a statement explaining its position.
"We have never condoned, supported, approved of or encouraged videogame piracy," it said. "We have not published any encryption or signing keys. We have not published any Sony code, or code derived from Sony's code."
The group also published court documents filed against it by Sony.
Hotz likewise published Sony's lawsuit on his site, which appears to be struggling to cope with interest and has become very slow to load.
As well filing the lawsuit, Sony may attempt to reestablish control of the situation by updating PS3 console software over the net.
GFI Security researcher Chris Boyd. an experienced gamer, said that simply pushing an update would not resolve the underlying problem, although it might treat its symptoms.
"Updating could be a nightmare - in theory, they could blacklist anything using current keys and whitelist all executable content with new keys but there's no guarantee the same thing won't happen again."
The PlayStation 3 is the last video game console to be hacked. Sony can take some comfort from this point, as well as noting that previous hacks against other consoles have not added up to an increase in video-game piracy, Boyd added.
"As far as piracy goes, Sony could ask game developers not to compress data on the blu-rays, which could deter pirates who don't want to download 50GB files every time they want to grab a game. Whilst I think current generation consoles are nearing their natural lifespan anyway, Sony will be encouraged by the fact that other consoles were hacked much earlier and still enjoy very healthy sales all round." ®
1Hotz (geohot) is not a member of Fail0verflow, as incorrectly reported in the initial version of this story.