Is Microsoft using 'Halo 2' to thwart Xbox hackers?

Hundreds of Xbox owners with modified consoles say they've been banned from the Xbox Live service in the past few days. Photo: Mod chip inside Photos: 'Halo 2' arrives

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
5 min read
Microsoft appears to be using its smash "Halo 2" game as a vehicle to crack down on mod chips and other hacks of its Xbox video game console.

Hundreds of Xbox owners have reported in online forums in recent days that they were banned from Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service, after trying to play "Halo 2" online with a modified console.


What's new:
Xbox Live users say they've been banned from their boxes after trying to play "Halo 2" on modified consoles.

Bottom line:
Console makers have long used any means available to thwart illegal copying of games. Critics say a modded Xbox can yield online cheating that ruins the gaming experience for paying customers.

More stories on Xbox hacking

A Microsoft representative would not specify which additional security measures, if any, have been added to Xbox Live around the "Halo 2" launch. "Microsoft listens carefully to the Xbox Live community and reserves the right to take steps necessary to preserve the integrity of the user experience," the representative said in a statement. "Our goal is to provide our users with secure, consistent and fair online game play. Users are not permitted to manipulate the system to the detriment of others."

"Mod chips," gray-market add-ons that allow game consoles to run imported discs, pirated games and homemade software, began circulating for the Xbox shortly after the game machine went on sale four years ago. Hackers who equip their Xboxes with mod chips and other upgrades, such as bigger hard drives, have gotten the consoles to perform all sorts of unauthorized tricks, including running Linux software and serving as digital media centers.

Microsoft and other hardware makers have long fought against mod chips, chiefly because those chips abet game piracy. The software giant's activities culminated in a Justice Department raid two years ago in which federal lawmakers took over a Web site used to sell mod chips and swap illegally copied games.

Billy Pidgeon, an analyst for research firm Zelos Group, said console makers have long used any means available to them to thwart mod chips and halt illegal copying of games. The advent of online gaming for consoles has raised the stakes, he said.

"They're worried not just about enabling casual piracy but also about cheating," Pidgeon said. "A modded Xbox can allow all sorts of new avenues for cheating online and ruining the experience for paying customers. I would argue that Xbox Live is a great experience for the end user precisely because it's a closed, controlled environment, and anything that threatens that is a real concern for Microsoft."

As first reported by CNET News.com, Microsoft has also used Xbox Live since its inception to crack down on mod chips and other hacks. The Xbox Live user agreement states that "Xbox Live may only be accessed with an unmodified, except for Microsoft-authorized repairs and upgrades, Xbox video game console. Any attempt to disassemble, decompile, create derivative works of, reverse engineer, modify, further sublicense, distribute or use for other purposes either the hardware or software of this system, is strictly prohibited and may result in termination of your account and/or your ability to access Xbox Live."

The agreement further gives Microsoft authority to "retrieve information from the Xbox used to log onto Xbox Live as necessary to operate and protect the security of Xbox Live and to enforce this agreement."

Initial Xbox Live antihacker measures focused on checking a

console's BIOS--the software that controls basic functions of a computing device--to ensure it was running on original Microsoft software. Hackers got around those checks with switches and software dongles that temporarily turn off a mod chip before signing in to Xbox Live.

Recent updates to the Xbox Live service, made just before Tuesday's release of "Halo 2" was set to touch off a huge surge in Xbox Live subscriptions, appear to go much further, however. The service now apparently checks the console's hard drive and boots any machine with storage different than the 8GB or 10GB hard drive originally supplied with the console. Hard drive upgrades are one of the most common hacks for the Xbox, allowing it to serve as a digital media jukebox.

Online forums such as Xbox Scene and Team Xecuter have logged reports from hundreds of Xbox owners who previously were able to access Xbox Live with their modified consoles--typically outfitted with a mod chip and a bigger hard drive--but have been banned from the service since trying to go online with "Halo 2."

"The Datapusher," a California systems administrator who asked that his real name not be used, said he's outfitted his Xbox with an Xecuter mod chip, a 200GB hard drive and some add-on software to turn the device into a digital media center. He didn't have any problem using Xbox Live until he got "Halo 2" this week.

"The current theory that I am subscribing to on the mass bans from Microsoft are that when you originally signed up for their service, they listed your hard drive in a database," Datapusher said via e-mail. "During one of their recent...service updates, they checked to see if the serial number of the drive matched the number listed in their database. If you were one of the unlucky people who had been flagged in this scan, you were banned from their service on the eve of one of the biggest game launches I can remember."

Datapusher said he was temporarily able to regain access to Xbox Live after some tinkering Wednesday night, but was banned again shortly after. He vowed not to give in and buy a new Xbox, the route reportedly taken by many hackers eager to join the online "Halo 2" scrum. "I won't give up that easily," he vowed. "Someone will find a way. Microsoft may be clever, but not as much so as the open-source community...there will always be a way around Microsoft security protocols."

Other hardware hackers reported similar experiences in online forums, with most relating their bans to changes they made in the Xbox hard drive. "In all honesty, I'm not really that bothered," said a poster at Team Xecuter, a site for mod-chip enthusiasts. "In fact, I kind of expected to get banned sooner or later the second I modded my box."