PSJailbreak: how the Playstation 3 was hacked

David Hughes's picture

Given the history of computer technology, it is a relatively safe assumption that anything can be hacked. Though the other current-generation gaming consoles were hacked quite some time ago, the notoriously difficult hardware within the Playstation 3 took until three weeks ago to give up its secrets. Much of this has been accomplished by a plug-and-play device known as the PSJailbreak—still less than a month old.

Legitimate reasons to use the PSJailbreak

The PSJailbreak involves custom written code loaded onto a flash memory control board that, when plugged into the PS3, overrides the standard XMB operating system that the console uses. PC users can think of this as analogous to booting from a Windows or Ubuntu CD rather than the OS loaded on the computer itself. Technically speaking, the PSJailbreak is not a modding device or chip like exploits currently in use for the Xbox 360 and the Wii. According to the official developers, there is no permanent change to the user’s system—unplug the control board and the PS3 will be back to your original specs.

Throughout the history of the Playstation 3, there have been stories of systems coming back from service centers locked into “factory” or “service” mode. The PSJailbreak accomplishes a similar feat—sidestepping the default OS of the console in order to get much deeper read-write access to the system hardware. That access comes with several uses, some legitimate and some not.

Legitimate uses. ‘Jailbreaking’ in its basic form is giving a device’s user complete control—allowing them to extend the device’s functionality beyond what the manufacturer originally intended. A common jailbreak is for Apple’s iPhone—allowing the user to install Android in place of iOS, for instance.

In the case of the PS3, users can jailbreak the PS3 to run custom code on the advanced Cell processor (a function lost when Sony disallowed installation of Linux withinin a separate partition), but a more common use would be to load games directly onto the HDD for backup and playback. As the official website notes: “play backups off your hard drives 2x as fast as off the blueray [sic] drive. This eliminates lags and glitches to provide you with smoother game play.” Making a digital copy of media the user owns is a completely legitimate action.

Developments currently planned by the community around the device will also allow a number of other features. One plan is for read-write to NTFS formatted HDD’s (which allows for file sizes greater than 4GB, unlike the PS3’s current support only for FAT32). Another feature to be added is installation of a user’s existing library of PS1 and PS2 games. PS2 emulation was removed after the first generation of PS3 consoles, and PS1 was removed after the second. Now that the platform is totally open, more features will undoubtedly roll out.

Illegitimate uses of PSJailbreak

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Once a backup is made, however, if the user then sells the copy of the game to someone else, continued use of the data is considered piracy, let alone uploading the disc image to the Internet for anyone to have. Which is exactly what makes devices such as the PSJailbreak so controversial. The device is not, in and of itself, piratical—but the intense consumer appeal is likely motivated by the desire to pirate games, especially when the exploit makes no permanent changes to the system that Sony could detect and remotely disable consoles as Microsoft has done.

Being able to make disc backups and run off of the HDD without needing Blu-ray disc reads is a nice feature, but the fact that the device sells for $125 in the U.S. and is currently sold out (except in Australia, where a court has temporarily banned sales of the device) suggests that users are more interested in the illegitimate features of the device.

Those interested in the legitimate side, however, just saw the price of extending the usability come way down. Several intrepid individuals have reverse engineered the source code that makes the PSJailbreak what it is. The hardware (a USB development board) needed is a mere $30 or so—if you can find it, as demand is currently outstripping supply.

With the exception of the ongoing legal action in Australia, Sony has had no public response. Stay tuned for further developments—keeping in mind this all started less than a month ago.

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