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Group resumes Xbox cracking project

A group of computer hobbyists resumes its project to crack the video game console's security code using distributed computing methods.

A group of computer hobbyists has resumed its effort to crack the main security code for Microsoft's Xbox video game console.

The Neo Project, a group that uses distributed computing techniques to crack security challenges, on Wednesday began offering software for its "Operation Project X."

Distributed computing, best known by the Seti@Home project searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, divvies up complex computing tasks among myriad computers. The Neo Project software will use thousands of PCs to try to guess the 2,048-bit encryption code used by the Xbox, an approach that could take years to yield results.

A cracked encryption code could allow hackers to run homemade Linux software on an unmodified Xbox, satisfying a $100,000 Xbox hacking challenge by Michael Robertson, chief executive of Linux software company Lindows.

The Neo Project began working on the Xbox security code late last year but abruptly dropped the project, citing unspecified legal concerns.

Project founder Mike Curry said in an e-mail interview that after consulting with lawyers, he was confident the new project was on solid legal ground as an educational research project. "We will not actually break any laws until we crack the code," he said.

Microsoft zealously has fought efforts to crack security systems built into the Xbox, particularly "mod chips," gray-market add-ons that can be installed in consoles to bypass security measures. The company has changed the Xbox configuration, sued a leading mod chip distributor, and used its Xbox live online gaming service to thwart mod chips. The U.S. Department of Justice entered the fray late last month, shutting down a mod chip reseller for allegedly violating provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.