XBox Hackers Throw in the Towel
Wed Jan 8, 9:00 AM ET
Peter Sayer, IDG News Service
The Neo Project, a group of distributed computing
enthusiasts, has abandoned its attempt to crack an
encryption key used to digitally sign software for
Microsoft's Xbox (news - web sites) video game
console, after just four days.
Many hackers are searching for ways to run their own
software on the Xbox, but so far they have been
thwarted by a security mechanism in the console that
only allows applications to run if they are digitally
signed with Microsoft's 2048-bit private encryption
key, according to one such group, the Xbox Linux
On January 3, The Neo Project posted code on its Web
site that would allow supporters to use their PC's
idle time to participate in a search for Microsoft's
private encryption key using distributed computing
techniques. Distributed computing breaks down complex
calculations into many simple tasks that can be run in
parallel on a network of computers.
Change of Heart
The next day, The Neo Project posted a notice on its
home page saying that if the Xbox project was found to
be illegal, or if the group was approached by
Microsoft, "We will be ditching the Xbox project all
together as we cannot afford the legal fees,"
according to an archive copy of the page held in the
cache of the search engine Google (news - external web
By January 7, The Neo Project's home page had changed
to read "Due to legal reasons, we will no longer be
hosting or participating in the Xbox challenge," and
the application containing the code to crack the Xbox
key was no longer available for download from the
The organizers of The Neo Project could not
immediately be reached for comment.
Many distributed-computing projects have sprung up to
respond to challenges issued by encryption and
security system vendors to solve arbitrary
cryptographic problems by brute force. Hundreds of
thousands of dollars in prize money are available to
those who are first to crack the codes. The vendors
gain because they are able to demonstrate that it can
take months of work by thousands of computers in order
to crack a single key.
The Neo Project began life last July as an attempt to
crack the $10,000 RSA-576 Factoring Challenge,
sponsored by RSA Security, before turning its
attention in January to Microsoft's real-life
application of the same algorithm.
Project supporters expressed mixed feelings in the
group's online discussion forum about the search for
the Xbox key. One member, signing their message
"Guspaz," said they had joined the project solely to
participate in the search for the key. "I'm saddened
by the Neo project's lack of resolve. (...)," the
member said. "Hopefully someone else will have the
balls to put up a DC [distributed computing] network
and stick with it."
Another, "Nemaroller," thought it was "a brilliant
move to discontinue the project," saying it was
nonconstructive and at the expense of a company that
was trying to protect the investment of billions of
dollars of its stockholders' money.
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