XBox 360: A harbinger of the PC lockdown to come?

XBox 360: A harbinger of the PC lockdown to come?

Summary: According to Engadget, the Free60 project has developed a list of barriers to hacking Linux onto Microsoft's XBox 360s that reads like an art thief's list of obstacles to stealing the Mona Lisa.  At first glance, a story about how the XBox could be hackproof may appear to you to be irrelevant if you're reading this blog (Between the Lines, "The blog for discriminating IT buyers").

SHARE:
TOPICS: Virtualization
93

According to Engadget, the Free60 project has developed a list of barriers to hacking Linux onto Microsoft's XBox 360s that reads like an art thief's list of obstacles to stealing the Mona Lisa.  At first glance, a story about how the XBox could be hackproof may appear to you to be irrelevant if you're reading this blog (Between the Lines, "The blog for discriminating IT buyers").  But when I read the list, I noticed how reminiscent the architecture is of the PC of the future (I know seems like an oxymoron, but this really is back to future stuff).

The list includes a unique, virtually hackproof security key for every XBox (reminiscent of the Trusted Platform Modules [TPMs] that are coming to future PCs), and a virtual machine architecture for authenticating legitimate kernels that really rings a bell with Intel's Vanderpool virtualization technology and the techniques that Apple will reportedly be using to make sure that the Intel-based systems it will be selling won't run anything but OS X and that OS X won't run on just any Intel-based system. Not surprisingly, those techniques, if used, will most likely involve some form of digital restrictions management (DRM) technology.  Although Microsoft has, with its Windows Product Activation technology, shown the resolve to marry specific OS licenses to specific systems, the company hasn't said whether or not it intends to take advantage of TPMs for similar purposes in future versions of Windows (including Windows Vista).  Are the lengths to which Microsoft is going to lock down its XBox 360s a harbinger of PCs to come? Here's the list from Engadget's coverage:

  • The flash is encrypted with a per-box key
  • The key is stored inside the CPU
  • The boot ROM is stored inside the CPU
  • Also inside the CPU is a hypervisor that verifies the running state of the kernel, making sure there is no modification (RAM checksums), else the Xbox 360 panics and blows up!
  • The CPU contains RAM inside of it to store the checksums
  • All interrupt/exception handling is done by the hypervisor
  • All code runs in kernel mode
  • The emulator for first generation games can be updated via an official Microsoft download burned to CD by the user, though the CDs’ content will be encrypted and signed with public key cryptography. The boot ROM is stored inside the CPU.

Topic: Virtualization

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

93 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Sounds to me like they learned a lesson last time.

    And aren't about to make the same mistake again.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • Eh?

      What mistake is that? From the sounds of it the deterents are more for preventing hobbyists from noodling around with the hardware than preventing people from playing pirated games. Besides if its a PC architecture then odds are it can be modded to let the pirates do with it what they will. I'm sure someone will figure it out. Sounds to me like the only people this hurts are the curious ones...
      Rokstar83
      • No "mod" chips, no Linux hacks, no pirating.

        Like I said, they seen it last time and are not going to make the same mistake again. And unless you are ready to pull the CPU out, replace it, and write every line of code from scratch, it's not getting hacked.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • I'll wait and see

          This looks like a challenge that many hardware enthusiast will take up. I'm betting at least one will be successful.
          voska
          • How right you are

            The real thing here is: They don't want it done lets see if I can do it. The more these companies try to control what people do with things they have purchased the more people try to find a way around it. Humm, Control Vs. freedom,is there a resemblance here to the American Revolution?
            lobo1953
        • Have hack will travel

          "its not getting hacked."
          Them sounds like fighting words. I think it will only be a matter of time before someone figures it out. Modded systems always come before "linux hacks," so it seems the real deterent was to stop people from exploring the hardware and putting software on it. While it is not a requirement that Microsoft aid people in this pursuit, what is wrong with it people playing with things they own? This is a different matter than software or content, as things of such nature are not owned but more or less leased. When you buy an Xbox you own said XBox, to do with what you will. I'm all for them trying to stop people from pirating their games, but as has been the case so far, these deterents have not done too well and only seem to harm the curious. Although those people usually find a way too. I still fail to see there original mistake they made. People will always pirate software/hardware/music/movies its rarely the fault of the maker of the product that they are pirated, certainly not in this case.
          Rokstar83
          • you miss the MS philosophy

            MS don't believe in "selling" products, they license them. thus that X-Box you "own" is actually the property of MS and you are just using it with their permission. hmmm.... actually that might be worth investigating... *puts on detective hat*
            Scott W
        • Sounds pretty sure of yourself there

          Tell you what, if, in two years time, no one has hacked it, I'll buy you a brand new XBox.

          If, on the other hand, someone HAS hacked it by then, you owe me one. Sound fair?
          Sxooter_z
    • Maybe I'm missing something...

      ... but I never saw the "Linux-on-XBox" thing as a big deal. Let's look at the following facts:

      * XBox, and XBox360, while retailing for less than the sum of their hardware components, is a platform designed for graphics and sound processing, not general computing.

      * The "hack an XBox" crowd seems to be purely Linux, I haven't heard of anyone dumping Windows XP or MacOSX onto an XBox (although, since XBox360 is a PPC platform, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine OSX on it...).

      * No business is ever going to use or sell a hacked XBox, relegated them to the home-user bucket.

      * Linux market share in the home-user market is a tiny, tiny, minuscule fraction of the market to begin with.

      Therefore, how many of these hacked XBoxes are out there? A few thousand? Maybe even ten thousand? How many XBoxes does Microsoft sell each year? I would wager that Microsoft spends more money trying to prevent hacking of the XBox than they lose on the units that got hacked.

      But Mr. Berlind does raise an interesting point here: is this Microsoft practising for the next wave of anti-piracy? I would definitely say so. The hardware and the software people would both love this kind of situation, in which you buy a computer but the OS is directly tied to what you bought. Windows Product Activation works in precisely this manner; change out too much hardware over a certain period of time, and it starts hassling you. I have yet to see someone get hit with this scenario, except in the case of catastrophic system crashes, at which point Microsoft was extremely helpful in getting their copy of XP re-activated on the new system with no worries.

      Mr. Berlind has, in some of the comments already, made an analogy to buying a car. As someone who has always worked on his own vehicles, I can tell you that except for the maintenance analogous to disk defragging, disk checks, and virus scanning, car repair has been impossible for Joe Six Pack since the early 70's when emissions standards were put into place. A mid-70's through 80's vehicle is filled with a huge amount of virtually undocumented vacuum tubes, wires, and valves to make it comply with federal regulations. Vehicles after that, using fuel injection, overhead cams, etc. require expensive equipment and training to properly troubleshoot and fix. Sure, you can still change your brakes and oil, but that is *it*.

      To take Mr. Berlind's analogy further, it is also true that for many new vehicles, self-maintenance (or maintenance by a non-factory-certified mechanic) instantly invalidates the warranty. As soons as someone other than Ford or Volvo or whoever opens the hood, the manufacturer washes their hands of the vehicle. There are many fasteners and what-nots in a car where a standard part would work just fine, and the special removal tool costs a fortune, just to ensure that it is prohibitively expensive for amatuers and non-certified mechanics to work on a vehicle.

      I can think of dozens of examples of products that the consumer used to be able to build, maintain, improve, modify, etc. themselves with off-the-shelf components. Radio stations. Telephones. Cars. Arcade consoles. Video game consoles. Computers (in the enar future). Very few people are complaining, because very few people care. While the demise of the home electronics enthusiast is a bit saddening to me (how many great engineers, programmers, etc. were born out of these home movements?), it not like the manufacurer's moves to eliminate these things from happening was illegal, or even wrong.

      At the end of the day, if you don't like where Intel/AMD/Microsoft are going with their architechtures, fine. SPARC is an open standard. You like open standards. There are tons of OS's out that there will run on SPARC. Solaris, Linux, BSD. Go get a SPARC system. Just like radio enthusiasts are no longer allowed to use many frequencies because the FCC regulates them. Just because you aren't able to do whatever you what to whatever you want to do it to does not mean that your rights are being infringed. There is still plenty of market, components, and software out there for the enthusiast, even if the Intel/AMD/Microsoft group collaborates to make only certain hardware/software combinations work.

      Remember, AMD and Intel chips are used in many, many, MANY non-Microsoft powered systems. It's not like the Linux/Solaris/BSD camps are going to re-write their software to work with a "RedHat Linux only" Itanium chip or a "FreeBSD only" Opteron chip. There will still be plenty of chips out there to work with. And if both Intel and AMD are so stupid to go along with this, then I have my next business plan. :)

      J.Ja
      Justin James
      • That's not how it works

        [i]Remember, AMD and Intel chips are used in many, many, MANY non-Microsoft powered systems. It's not like the Linux/Solaris/BSD camps are going to re-write their software to work with a "RedHat Linux only" Itanium chip or a "FreeBSD only" Opteron chip.[/i]

        You don't seem to understand how it works.

        The idea is that the CPU itself has a hardware key, and won't boot anything other than code which is signed to match. If you want your code to run only on Intel, you send the kernel over to Intel to get a signature for it, which they will generate for a "modest" fee. If you want it to run on AMD, too, then you have to pay AMD.

        This is, of course, necessary for each kernel revision.

        The other side of it is that the CPU keeps cryptographic keys inside, and only the manufacturer has the master key. If law enforcement or anyone else sufficiently persuasive asks, they can get the master key to your system and recover the other keys kept there; this is one of those "otherwise people with guns lock your plant doors" features.

        HTH. HAND.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Who had the key?

          It would seem to me that the key would have to be on the system. Since it has to be there in order to check to see if you can run the software. Since the key is present that key is in the hands of the owner. Now clever people will figure ways to find that key, security by obsurity doesn't work. So when they find it they can unlock the X-Box 360 and run what ever they want. It's just a matter of time. I'm guessing you'll see this hacked by Christmas.

          That's the nature of an type of restrictive DRM. You have to supply the key to those you want to use authorized content. With the same key they use to access authorized content they can use it to access unauthorized content. Just a matter looking for a finding the key.
          voska
          • But the key is in a

            tamper-resistant discrete hardware module, a TPM. How are they going to get that? By breaking each individual machine? I don't think so.
            ordaj9
          • Do you understand key infrastructure?

            It works like this. You have private key to unlock the content. You lock the content using a public key. The public key is generated using the private key. So if you have the private key you can generate as many public keys as you wish. That means you can sign all the software you want with that public key. Then said softare will work on the X-Box 360 as it show as being signed by Microsoft. No need to break the hardware as you just need the key string. This a very simplistic overview here so take it as that.

            In the case of the X-Box 360 finding the key would be the difficult part as you usually use some sort of software to do it and that software is unsigned. So is there a way of reaching that hardware module directly from the hardware? I don't know.
            voska
          • Do you?

            https://www.trustedcomputinggroup.org/specs/TPM/
            ordaj9
          • Did you even read those PDFs?

            They pretty much states what I said.

            The technology is a good technology it's just no fool proof. Nothing is. You can break in to fort knox but it's not going to be easy but it is possible. Saying it's impossible to hack X-Box 360 is incorrect. It is possible but extremely hard to do.
            voska
          • Mistaken impressions

            [i]It would seem to me that the key would have to be on the system.[/i]

            The system key is in the processor, which also keeps additional private keys. Microsoft has the matching keys.

            [i]Since the key is present that key is in the hands of the owner.[/i]

            Only if the owner is willing to destroy the system to get at it. Since the master keys are unique to each CPU, cracking one won't help you crack others.

            [i]Now clever people will figure ways to find that key, security by obsurity doesn't work.[/i]

            It's not "security by obscurity" in the sense you mean. It's actually a very solid encryption architecture, better than most military systems have had until very recently.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • You are correct

            Average users of the system will not be hacking this as it will be extremely difficult to get the key from the hardware.

            You are also correct that encyption technology is very solid. The obscurity part is that the key to said solid encryption is just hidden but not technically secure. It is hidden well enough in a hard enough location to make the average user not even think of looking for it let alone accessing it. I think that's what Microsoft tried to achieve.
            voska
        • Are you *sure* this is the way it works?

          I'm not too sure it is.
          ordaj9
        • I think maybe you misunderstood

          "The idea is that the CPU itself has a hardware key, and won't boot anything other than code which is signed to match. If you want your code to run only on Intel, you send the kernel over to Intel to get a signature for it, which they will generate for a "modest" fee. If you want it to run on AMD, too, then you have to pay AMD."

          Compare this to what I wrote:

          "Remember, AMD and Intel chips are used in many, many, MANY non-Microsoft powered systems. It's not like the Linux/Solaris/BSD camps are going to re-write their software to work with a "RedHat Linux only" Itanium chip or a "FreeBSD only" Opteron chip."

          My point here is EXACTLY what you stated. The Linux folks, the BSD folks, they are NOT going to submit to the idea of paying Intel or AMD a license fee to run their software on those CPUs. Intel and AMD will be forced to have a CPU available that will run OS's that do not work with the hardware key system, otherwise those OS's will simply drop support for those platforms. Do you think that AMD will give up the Opteron/Linux market simply to go along with a DRM system which *does not benefit them in the slightest*?

          Where is the profit margin for Intel/AMD on this? Tell me where, please. All they do is cut off a rapidly growing market (Linux, BSD, and other open source servers) to pacify Microsoft. Sure, Intel and Microsoft play buddy buddy, but they are hardly joined at the hip. Remember, Microsoft went to IBM for the PPC platform for the XBox, reviving their Windows 2000 PPC codebase to do so (I think NT 4, but it may have been NT 3.51 was the last NT/2K/XP OS to be sold for PPC). Sure, the CPU maker may get a licensing fee, but it will be a drop in the bucket compared to the profit they make on a per-chip basis.

          Furthermore, how will this work? If they charge on a per-CPU basis then the entire open source OS community either folds (which cuts off a large revenue stream to the chip makers), or alternatively there needs to be a system for the users of the open source OS's to purchase the keys for their OS's to be installed. With that scheme, the customer doesn't suffer, because they will then be able to purchase their keys as needed, and the additional cost to the open source OS user is the same as the additional cost to a Microsoft or Apple user, since those OS makers will also be passing the cost of the key down to the customer. The alternative to a per-chip fee would be for the OS makers to have to pay a flat fee, which I am sure that IBM or RedHat, or whoever would pay, and then release it to all of their customers.

          No matter how you slice it, the chip makers are simply going to end up offering two versions of the chips. Ones with the hardware key built in and requiring the matching software key, and one without.

          J.Ja
          Justin James
          • A few good kernels

            [i]The Linux folks, the BSD folks, they are NOT going to submit to the idea of paying Intel or AMD a license fee to run their software on those CPUs. Intel and AMD will be forced to have a CPU available that will run OS's that do not work with the hardware key system, otherwise those OS's will simply drop support for those platforms. Do you think that AMD will give up the Opteron/Linux market simply to go along with a DRM system which *does not benefit them in the slightest*?[/i]

            Not really a problem. Red Hat can afford a few thousand for each kernel they release, and so can Novell. Mandriva, too, for that matter.

            After you've accounted for the top handful and those who are willing to switch to them, there isn't enough money left over to make a dent in the bottom line. Anyone who can't pony up a few thousand to get a kernel signed aren't about to spend billions to make a DRM-free processor.
            Yagotta B. Kidding