There is also something exciting about the smell of brand new electronics equipment, fresh out of their anti-static bags; I think it is the smell of a new adventure unfolding. (p. 11)
Hacking the Xbox is Bunnie Huang’s true-life story of how he cracked the security of Microsoft’s Xbox game console. Even if you’re not interested in the Xbox per se, this is a fascinating book about hacking. It’s also full of practical advice for beginners.
Bunnie demonstrates Xbox hacks for readers at all levels of skill, from the relatively easy (switching a red LED for blue) to the potentially fatal (installing a new power supply). Bunnie shows you how to add a USB adaptor (so you can connect a conventional keyboard and mouse), modify the Xbox’ video connector to work with VGA displays, install a larger hard disk, and other warranty-voiding enhancements.
There is also a fascinating and extensive (four chapters) discussion of how Bunnie was able to crack and bypass the security mechanisms in the Xbox, allowing him to cause the Xbox to run the software of his choice (namely, Linux).
Unfortunately, discovering the inner workings of your own property and sharing what you’ve learned with your friends is not the legally straightforward activity it should be. For Americans at least, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a troubling reality.
Bunnie found that the challenges presented by the Xbox were more than merely technical: “In retrospect, hacking the Xbox was less challenging technically than it was socially and legally.” (p. 134) The administration at MIT didn’t want to let him publish his Xbox security research under their auspices at first, because they feared that they could be sued under the terms of the DMCA. (Bunnie did his Xbox work while completing a PhD in electrical engineering at MIT.) For the same reason, Hacking the Xbox was dropped by its original publisher (Wiley), but fortunately Bunnie was able to self-publish the book through his company Xenatera. No Starch Press has since agreed to publish the book as well.
Hacking the Xbox includes an illuminating chapter by Lee Tien, Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which discusses the legal issues involved in hacking and reverse engineering.
The freedom to tinker should also include the right to talk about tinkering. But as we’ve seen, many of the new intellectual property rules limit the right of reverse engineers to share what they learn from tinkering. These limits not only raise serious First Amendment free-speech issues, they go to the heart of the constitutional basis for copyright and patent law: progress in the arts and sciences. One of the major issues raised by the DMCA is its chilling effect on scientists. (p. 191)
As well as being a game console, the Xbox is also a sort of test-bed for Microsoft’s vision of “Trusted Computing”. Bunnie notes that “the Xbox gives us a hint of what we might expect down the road for trusted computing. [...] Trusted computing is like a gun. It’s great to have one as long as you’re the one controlling the trigger. Unfortunately, many trusted PC opponents fear that in practice, systems will be deployed with preset rights, policies, and third-party trust affirmation resources pointed in the wrong direction for consumers.” (p. 197)
On the bright side, hackers like Bunnie have made short work of the Xbox.