Can Sony Really Ban Users Without PlayStation Network Access?

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There's an editorial circulating that Sony could put the kibosh on hacked PlayStation 3 consoles without PlayStation Network access at any time. The piece conflates speculation about what Sony might do with what they might be able to do, and comes in the wake of news that Sony is suing the hackers responsible for reverse-enginering the PS3's core security routines and offering a root-level workaround that allows users to sign and execute code indiscriminately.

The editorial, offered by a Eurogamer subsection better known for running speculative (though technically astute) visual comparisons of games, takes as fact information posted to popular Internet games forum NeoGAF. The information cited in the post (from an unnamed source) claims that "on boot the [PS3] contacts the server and uploads the play list etc.," and includes a list of "port sniffed" servers the PS3 communicates with during startup. The source speculates about what each server in the list might be responsible for, including several that may perform redundant "update attempt[s]" as well as one that looks for "crash reports."

Assuming any of that information is accurate and contextual, it still overlooks an important side note: The PlayStation 3 doesn't require network access, much less PSN access, to function.

You have the capacity to power up any model PS3 running any firmware version without your network so much as blinking at the system. It's as simple as disabling network access on the PS3, which of course disables its ability to physically communicate with Sony or anyone else.

The answer to the question up top is thus "it depends." Not on whether you connect to the PlayStation Network, but whether you connect to the Internet in the first place. After all, you can't ban a computing device that can't communicate what it's up to. In fact some users (including the NeoGAF source) speculate it may be possible to temporarily work around the PS3's boot time communication queries by employing a proxy device with a domain block list to simply ignore the servers listed.

What about newer games that prompt you to update your system firmware upon inserting the disc? You can ignore the prompt, of course, but at expense of playing the game. And it's at least hypothetically possible for Sony to include future code on game discs that would automatically render inoperable a 'jailbroken' system without prompting you first.

Sure, if you disable your PS3's network access you're compromising an essential reason to own one. You're giving up the PlayStation Network, competitive online games, browsing and buying from the PlayStation Store, and streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu Plus.

Don't assume you're still entitled to that stuff if you run the hack. The jury's still out on whether the hack qualifies as 'jailbreaking', or if it does, whether it qualifies for the same Digital Millennium Copyright Act 'fair use' exemptions Apple's iPhone did last year.

What happens today if you connect to the Internet with a 'jailbroken' PS3? We're back to speculation about the "boot manager" information ostensibly communicated to Sony's servers at startup. The hack's simply too new, and it's hard to say what users are doing with it. Reports of related Sony bans are at this point nonexistent.

Eurogamer predicts Sony's response could take the form of "internal checks to be carried out during run-time and on boot to ensure the integrity of GameOS." They means future firmware updates that add some sort of offline ("internal") self-check against compromised code, which at first blush sounds compelling, but still begs the question, if it's really so "trivial for Sony to code," why the company didn't include those checks in the first place.

In any event, an attempt to strike consoles running the new hack seems inevitable. The 'Other OS' defense aside, users can now apparently sign their own code, allowing them to do virtually anything to the system, a potentially serious problem Sony won't wait for (or wager on) the courts to sort out.

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