Long a Target, Sony’s PS3 Faces Pirate Onslaught

A run on programmable USB boards suggests that an open source version of the recent PSJailbreak could make it tough for Sony to stamp out PS3 piracy. 

A run on programmable USB boards suggests that an open source version of the recent PSJailbreak could make it tough for Sony to stamp out PS3 piracy. 

Lawyers working for Sony Corp. spent the waning months of the Australian winter in court trying to stop sales of a new product, PSJailbreak, that purports to disable copy protection features in its popular PS3 game console, but the emergence of an open source version of PSJailbreak could stymie the company’s efforts to maintain control over the devices its sells. 

An open source project, dubbed PSGroove released a free version of the PSJailbreak tool on Wednesday, throwing open the door to developers to use and modify the technology embedded in PSJailbreak devices. Project organizers, writing on the PSGroove Project web site, claim they are not offering the code to aid with piracy, but to “allow execution of third party apps and games on the PS3.” Sony did not respond to a request for comment in time for this story, but it is believed the company is developing a firmware patch to disable the exploit used by PSJailbreak and PSGroove.

Sony has been on the defensive with its popular gaming platform since the release, in August, of a USB-based tool for”jailbreaking” PS3 consoles — effectively removing content protection features that prevent PS3 users from being able to use PS3 devices more like general purpose computers without requiring messy hardware modifications that would void the device’s warranty.

After running PSJailbreak, users could store their games locally on PS3 devices and run them from disk, rather than from the original game DVD. They might also develop and run their own software for the PS3 or software created by independent third parties.  

In August, Sony was able to win a court injunction that halted sales and importation of the USB devices in Australia and give Sony control of that countries inventory of PSJailbreak devices, which had been retailing for $130.

The PSJailbreak and PSGroove hacks are both built on the same exploit of a PS3 feature that allows authorized USB “jig” devices to put the PS3 into debug mode for testing, repair or development. Though the details of the hack are complicated, a write up of the project on the PS3 Wiki suggests that hackers were able to reverse engineer the jig device, allowing them to bypass the jig authentication routine with a clone jig that also functions as a virtual, multi-port USB hub.

That virtual “hub” is used to exploit the heap overflow, manipulating a function used by PS3 to load and unload USB devices. By “plugging” and “unplugging” devices into the virtual hub, shell code is transferred to the PS3 and run, putting the device into debug mode, which gives users wide latitude to run their own applications on the PS3 or otherwise modify the system, according to the description of the hack provided on the PS3 Wiki.

Unlike the proprietary PSJailbreak, PSGroove would allow anyone with a modicum of hardware and software skills and less than $100 to purchase the necessary hardware and software to build their own PSJailbreak device or modify it, leveraging code and instructions available on the PSGroove project Web site

Similar hardware and software based exploits exist for competing gaming platforms such as Microsoft’s X-Box and Nintendo’s Wii, allowing users to expand the functionality of those devices beyond what’s supported by their manufacturers.

While its unclear how many individuals will take advantage of the development tools and code, there are signs that demand is strong. Paul Stoffregen of electronics components dealer PJRC in Sherwood, Oregon said online orders and phone calls for two models of a USB Development Boards that are recommended for use with the PSGroove software, the Teensy and Teensy++, started pouring in this week and that the store has since sold out of both models.

Stoffregen said his company developed and sells the boards, which are used by hobbyists for all manner of projects. He said he wasn’t familiar with the technical details of the PSGroove “project,” but that Teensy boards are well suited to work with the PS3 because they can emulate any kind of USB device and can connect to devices other than traditional laptop or desktop computers. 

Stoffregen said he has sold well more than a thousand of the Teensy boards, which are typically sold to students for classroom projects, in the past few days, but declined to give a specific number. 

“There are a lot of people very excited about this project and waiting that extra two or three days for your order can be frustrating,” he said.

He and his wife, who co-manage PJRC expect to have orders for their current stock of the boards completed within the next couple days, and that more are on order. Once that order is fulfilled however, bottlenecks elsewhere in the pipeline may mean it takes months to manufacture more Teensy boards to be used with the PSGroove software. 

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