Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The skinny on Modchips!

Modchips, just add salt!

The music and movie industries have always implemented methods to prevent copying and illegal redistribution of their products. Obviously, they do this to create jobs, and make money. Although, some would argue that they do this simply because they can. Unfortunately, these methods of protection limit our free use and often dictate what we can do with items we have purchased. Let’s not get into the legalities here. One side of the argument is the purchase and use of computer software - you do not own it, you are merely licensing it for your use. With music, movies and games, the same thing applies. We are purchasing the right to play and use the product for our personal enjoyment. Not to copy or broadcast. Ok, fine. The consumer’s main argument has always been what right doea a company have to tell you what you can do with something you have purchased – like your car, can you be told where when and how you can use it? In relation to software, what happens if your original media is damaged, can you get a replacement copy without having to purchase the product again? The answer is of course no. Well that just doesn’t sit right for the average consumer. Why can we not copy or backup our purchased products for safekeeping? Well, simply put, because there is no way to legitimize your damaged media claim, and secondly, because they can make more money.

When you tell someone no, and don’t offer a valid reason or justification, you can expect defiance, anger, determination and frustration in their reaction. This drives individuals to resist and find alternatives. Collectively, people form user groups and focus their energies on hacking into whatever they wish to change. One example is backing up copyrighted cd’s and dvd’s. A special type of alphanumerical lock was developed to protect music and movie cd’s from being copied, this was quickly hacked and the protection schemes were bypassed making the public free to backup their purchased media products.

DCMA laws in the USA have been enacted to protect companies and the public against all forms of tampering and illegal copying of protected works, which further infuriates many people, and often motivates them to work harder. In trying to combat these limitations, and with the influence and benefit of the internet, hacking communities are formed. Just as the BORG on Star Trek, they are united and focused on one task. The collective power in unstoppable.

Music and Movie protection schemes have been unlocked, most recently with the High Definition DVD exploit located and defeated. Computer software and games have also proved very little resistance against the collectively focused public. The remaining frontier is console games. Sony Play Station, Nintendo and Microsoft are the big three and all have been defeated. The methods to defeat these are quite complicated and require the installation of electronic bypass circuits commonly called Modification chips, or modchips. The most recent development is the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 systems. Within days of retail release of these products, one could read the progress made in cracking these systems. The xbox 360 was cracked within weeks of its release. Cracking the xbox360 means that retail purchased games can be backed up. One could copy the retail product, put it in safe keeping and play the backup version.
Soon after its release, the Nintendo Wii was also cracked and a modchip was developed to bypass its built in protection technologies. Modchips are not for the faint of heart, and almost always require some sort of installation within the game console system. Installing a modchip voids the original manufacturer warranty in several ways. First, the xbox and xbox 360 have end user licensing agreements (EULA), just as Microsoft Windows products do. Opening the package and using the system means that you have agreed to those terms and conditions. What does this mean – well in Microsoft’s case, you are using the xbox and the software on it for entertainment purposes, you cannot do anything to modify, or exploit the hardware, or the programs running on it. Any attempt to do so voids the EULA, and may be punishable by law. Of course, good luck enforcing this in our homes, but try to sell a game, or make a profit and you can be legally punished, like this fellow.

Modchips are hardware modifications designed to bypass electrical circuitry, which means that their installation requires some knowledge of soldering and working with electronic circuits. Alternative modchips are software based and can often be run using specially created cd’s using software exploitation techniques.

Firmware modifications are nothing new either. Firmware modifications are present everywhere from onboard car computer chips to home dvd and cd players. Sometimes, manufacturers release products that are priced based on features they include. A top of the line products may be exactly the same as the lower model, with only some slight differences. You can buy the less expensive model, and flash the firmware to get the same features as the higher priced model. Flashing is the term used to write a program onto a chip.

The preferred mod is the firmware flash for many reasons. First, no soldering is require, and no installation of any electronic circuits. Second, flashing can be undone, or reverted.
Third, flashing is easier to do that installing anything. In some cases, a firmware flash can be done without ever opening the case.

Video game manufacturers have not stood idly by either. As a modchip is released, the manufacturers quickly learn the method used by the modchip and develop a counter measure. The most common method to compat modchips is a forced update of the firmware. When you purchase a new game, the game will have an updated firmware that must be installed to play that particular game. Update your firmware almost always kills the modchip. Microsoft developed the xbox live system which enables game concoles to be connected to the internet and receive updates, and content. This system also allows Microsoft to look at your system’s firmware and detect the presence of any modifications. Their ability to snoop into your system is a cause for concern in regards to the DCMA, however you did agree to this when you plugged the system in and connected it to the internet and the Xbox Live system.

Microsoft has the ability to detect your firmware, and ban your xbox system based on its serial number. The ban is permanent and for life. This means that your xbox will function, however never on the Xbox Live system. Of course there is a modification for this, actually two. First, get a new chip for the one that contains your system serial number – or an eprom chip as they call it. One can be purchased online easily from a non working xbox. The eprom can be replaced and it would restore your xbox to an non-banned state. Of course, connect to the xbox live system and the process would repeat itself.
The workaround is to disable the modchip. Many modchips have a switch to allow them to be enabled, or disabled when you boot the console. Disabling the modchip allows the system to appear and operate as it does out of the box. Enable the modchip, and you have all the features again, of course with no online play ability.

The next evolution is Stealth. Enabling a modchip for online play, to receive updates to your console and to appear as a normal system. Once again, manufacturers work to detect these modifications and the cycle repeats.

Most recently, modchips have been somewhat outshined by firmware modifications to the DVD drives of the units. The basic principle of this technique is that the DVD drive’s firmware can be modified to allow backup copies of games to be played. Modifying a DVD player firmware is far simpler and quicker than installing a modchip. The process requires a modified firmware file that is transferred to the dvd drive from your computer. Not only is it easy, but also provides stealth, and the ability to undo the modification in case any problems.

Last but not least, USB and memory card firmware modifications. This will ultimately be the most preferred method of modding a game console. Using a USB memory device to flash the firmware. In comparison, nothing need be disassembled, no tampering or opening the casing of the console. Simply plug in the usb memory device and load the file on it to run the mod.