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Did PlayStation Network hackers plan supercomputer botnet?

Sony 'arrogance' fuels Doomsday scenario

By Dan Goodin, 29 Apr 2011

The dearth of details from Sony about a criminal intrusion into its PlayStation Network is fomenting plenty of speculation about the methods and motives behind the attackers, and some of it isn't pretty.

The most dire scenario is that attackers gained, or tried to gain, control of the part of Sony's network that issues updates for the PlayStation 3. If that were to happen, the attackers could use the private key uncovered late last year by the fail0verflow hacker collective, and independently published around the same time by jailbreaker George Hotz, to sign malicious firmware updates offered to tens of millions of console owners.

In 2008, researchers effectively created their own rogue certificate authority by harnessing the massive computing power of just 200 PS3s to find so-called collisions in MD5, a cryptographic hash algorithm with known weaknesses. With an army of literally millions of zombie PS3s under their control, hackers would own a supercomputer at par or superior to those possessed by most nation states, and they wouldn't even have to foot the power bill.

“It's really scary,” said Marsh Ray, a researcher and software developer at two-factor authentication service PhoneFactor, who fleshed out the doomsday scenario more thoroughly on Monday. “It's justification for Sony freaking out. They could lose control of their whole PS3 network.”

Ray's speculation is fueled in part by chat transcripts that appear to show unknown hackers discussing serious weaknesses in the PSN authentication system. In it, purported hackers going by the handles trixter and SKFU discuss how to connect to PSN servers using consoles with older firmware that contain bugs susceptible to jailbreaking exploits, even though Sony takes great pains to prevent that from happening.

“I just finished decrypting 100% of all PSN functions,” SKFU claimed.

There's no evidence the participants had anything to do with the massive security breach that plundered names, addresses, email addresses, passwords and other sensitive information from some 77 million PSN users. But the log did raise questions about the security of the network, since it claimed it was possible to fool the PSN's authentication system into permitting rogue consoles.

What's more, the hackers discussed ways to use a modified version of Moxie Marlinspike's SSLSniff on modded PS3s to defeat SSL encryption that protects communications between the PSN and the console.

Around the same time the chat log came to light, a PS3 user blogged about Rebug, which he described as a piece of custom firmware that converts retail consoles into developer consoles with significantly more options. Once again, there's no evidence the PS3 user, who went by the name chesh420, had anything to do with the breach, but he claimed the modded machines were able to engage in “extreme piracy of PSN content” by bypassing the network's authentication system.

Researchers speculating on the cause of the PSN breach are reading the posts as evidence that it may be possible to override Sony's security using modded PS3s, particularly if it was premised on the assumption that it was impossible for jailbroken consoles to access the network.

Sony 'arrogance' undermines security

“If you can't jailbreak it, then I can see a developer assuming that they don't need a particular authorization check on what's coming across the wire because a user can't do that,” said WhiteHat Security CTO Jeremiah Grossman, an expert in web application security. “So if somebody managed to jailbreak their device and pop a flaw, I can see something major happening there.”

Hotz, the PS3 jailbreaker who recently settled the copyright lawsuit Sony brought against him, said in a recent blog post that the theory is plausible and that responsibility for the hack lay squarely on the shoulders of Sony executives who placed too much trust in the invulnerability of the PS3.

“Since everyone knows the PS3 is unhackable, why waste money adding pointless security between the client and the server?” Hotz, aka GeoHot, wrote. “This arrogance undermines a basic security principle, never trust the client. Sony needs to accept that they no longer own and control the PS3 when they sell it to you.”

Of course, the cause of the hack and the motivation of those behind it are pure speculation. A SQL injection attack, which uses ordinary user input to pass powerful commands to a website's backend database, might also have been at play, as could any number of other exploits.

What's clear from the information stolen, the possibility that encrypted payment card data was also taken, and the amount of time the PSN has been unavailable (nine days at time of writing), is that the attackers had access to the very core of Sony's system – its database or web application system, for instance – and that this access lasted for hours or days.

PSN users are already lining up in court to sue Sony over the colossal security failure.

According to Sony's bare-bones account, the information was compromised from April 17 to April 19. By the following day, the PSN was taken offline. That means the scenario raised by Ray, the researcher who said attackers may have wanted to build their own supercomputer botnet, almost certainly didn't have enough time to unfold.

But he said users shouldn't assume anything until they get more information.

“In the meantime, I recommend that everyone unplug the network cable and disable the WiFi from their PS3 until the all-clear signal is given from Sony,” he wrote. “Ideally that signal would take the form of a disclosure of information in sufficient detail for us to come to our own judgment about the security of these systems going forward before we allow them back on our internal networks again.” ®

Bootnote

Kevin Poulsen of Wired.com spins an engaging yarn about Trixter. Referring to the chat log, Poulsen writes: "The parts of the discussion that delve into Sony’s security posture appear eerily prescient in the wake of the intrusion that exposed personal information on 77 million users, and copies of the chats are now lighting up gaming blogs and Twitter feeds."

More unconfirmed bread crumbs, these ones strongly suggesting sony.com2.us was hacked. That, of course, ain't Sony's.