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The PS3 hack and the freedom umbrella January 13, 2011

Posted by Cesar in gaming me, working me.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Another year, another post. I went back to Brazil for the holidays (it was great!) and came back decided to keep up with the PostAWeek challenge. Let’s see what happens, this is my first entry.

What got me the most interested during my vacation was the PS3 hack drama. As a computer engineer, I find the whole subject very interesting. It is amazing what these guys went through to hack a piece of hardware like the PS3. Even though the security system had a significant and easy to avoid flaw (this is a good start on the subject), finding it required serious skill from the notorious George Hotz, aka geohot, and the chaps from fail0verflow.

As a guy who likes math, programming and puzzles to an extreme, I can easily see the appeal of searching (or should I say researching?) for such hack. It is a huge project which demands a very deep knowledge of the field: digital security systems, cryptography and other theory heavy subjects. And on top of it all, success is highly dependent on creativity, insight and tenacity.

Unfortunately for Sony, that’s not all. The uncovered security breach is embedded so deep into the system hardware that apparently there’s no way to prevent it through firmware updates. Now that the security key is known, no matter what Sony does the hack can be redone. Sony denies the allegation, but while Sony shouts without arguments, fail0verflow’s explanation seems solid.

Anyway, from a programming point of view, I think this guys are fantastic and deserve applause. However, I can’t help thinking of the big picture and, all things considered, I’m not so sure I like geohot and the others all that much.

Both geohot and fail0verflow are firmly against piracy. They say their only goal is to be able to dual-boot Linux + GameOS and be able to develop for the platform. Hotz claims the efforts to hack the PS3 were only intensified in face of Sony’s decision to remove support for OtherOS from the console. I confess I never even considered playing with the PS3 hardware, by the time I got it support for OtherOS wasn’t there anymore. But it was definitely a nice feature that any interested programmer would love to use.

On the other hand, the implications of the hack for the industry are considerable. Sony will now have to deal with the issue actively since there seems to be no way to truly avoid the exploit. I could be wrong, but we are probably looking at more frequent updates and the eventual ban of consoles from online space. But that’s the smaller of the problems. Piracy rate will probably increase considerably, making the PS3 a less desirable platform for publishers and, as a consequence, for developers. It shifts the stability of the ecosystem, every investment in the PS3 a little less safe.

It is very hard to tackle the problem from a legal standpoint, if anyone can explain what rights a PS3 owner has, please do! What I can say is that while it seems fair to demand and pursue the ability to develop for Sony’s console, it doesn’t seem right to cause so much trouble to manufacturer, publishers, studios and ultimately consumers that invested in the PS3. Not everything is meant to be public, some things are better off encrypted. Throwing everything under the umbrella of freedom and claim the right to information is just as dangerous as it is easy. As sad as it is, the good intentions of an individual cannot be translated to humanity as a whole; we cannot forget that homo homini lupus, there’s always someone looking for profit at the expense of everyone else.

Ultimately, geohot’s intentions don’t matter. In face of his discovery, some very few will indeed dual-boot Linux + GameOS quietly from their homes and just enjoy free access to the Cell processor. The vast majority, however, will use it to play all sorts of illegal software on the console, considerably stimulating the pirate software industry. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

See you space cowboys…

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