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Mods Rule

By Annalee Newitz

LAST WEEK, I told you in lurid detail how I became passionately attached to my Xbox game system. I became so attached, in fact, that I needed to open up the proprietary little machine, change its hardware and software, and set it free from Microsoft's iron chains. And I did. But not without a certain amount of heartbreak.

You see, the cornerstone of Xbox liberation is what geeks call a "modchip." Once you've installed this chip on your Xbox motherboard and flashed it with the appropriate software, it circumvents the Xbox's basic input-output system (BIOS) and allows you to install another operating system on the hardware--ideally, a free one like GNU/Linux. This is all perfectly legal: according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), you are permitted to reverse-engineer equipment for the purposes of "interoperability." So the modchip allows the Xbox and GNU/Linux to interoperate. Things go dark and illegal when people use the modchip to get around the copyright-protection crap Microsoft has built into its game system to prevent you from playing copies of Centipede you downloaded off the net.

But my job was to get a bitchen modchip so that the Xbox would be fully interoperable with my favorite OS. Unfortunately, I was foiled in my quest to get the coveted modchip X-ecutor 2.2 Pro. I don't want to bore you with all the stupid details of trying to get a gray-market chip on the Internet from websites that post unreliable information about their wares. Suffice it to say that I wound up with an X-ecutor 2.2 Lite Plus, which differs from the Pro only in that it connects to the motherboard via little conductive metal nipples called pogo pins. We bolted the chip to the board in a precarious operation that ended in a lot of snarking about how we had all hoped to solder something.

After defeating the dreaded pogo pins and flashing the modchip, we had a device whose legality has not yet been determined by a court of law. My Xbox would be unequivocally illegal if its purpose were to circumvent copyright and allow us to play Centipede. But that wasn't our goal.

Only one person could truly elucidate our experience: bunnie, the hacker who had inspired us with his book Hacking the Xbox (No Starch Press). So I gave him a call. A former MIT graduate student, bunnie wrote his book as a side project while completing a Ph.D. thesis on supercomputers. He's the kind of guy who compulsively takes everything apart in his spare time, whether it's a car engine or a printer cartridge. And he always learns something from his tinkering that goes far beyond hardware specs. Bunnie, you see, is a true hacker. When he looks at a circuit board, he doesn't just see transistors and capacitors and resistors. He sees politics.

"Hacking the Xbox is a free-speech issue," bunnie says. "The right for people to reverse-engineer hardware has traditionally been protected. But with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you can't do reverse engineering anymore if the hardware is secured with crypto."

Under the DMCA, hacking the Xbox could be interpreted as a criminal act. When you install a modchip, you're creating a way around the cryptographically secured parts of the Xbox--parts that are designed specifically to keep you from playing games, DVDs or CDs that have been copied. In consultation with lawyers at the venerable Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), bunnie made sure the projects in his book didn't violate any copyright laws. There's even a great chapter by EFF lawyer Lee Tien on what kinds of reverse engineering are legal under the DMCA.

But bunnie's book isn't about violating copyright. It's an elegant, smart and accessible introduction to hardware hacking that happens to use the Xbox as a learning tool. This is the book bunnie says he wished he had when he was a curious 16-year-old who wanted to understand what was in his stereo amplifier. "So many people are daunted by hardware--they think it's esoteric," bunnie says. "But it's not. It's designed to be tested, and you can test it, too."

So what does bunnie think of the vast majority of Xbox hackers like me, who order a modchip online and stick it on the motherboard without doing a lot of complicated hardware tinkering? He laughs and says he thinks it's great for people to mod their Xboxes, even if it's only to play pirated games. "Philosophically, I think modchips equalize the market," he explains. "Companies are out to make a buck. They use the DMCA to enforce their hegemony, and it's in the public's interest to use modchips to essentially modify this policy and make the market fair. It's like a form of civil disobedience, and I like that. It's like having sit-ins and saying to places like Microsoft that their prices are too high and they don't offer enough value."

In the 1960s, they had Abbie Hoffman. Luckily, we have bunnie. I can't wait to see what he hacks next.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who has found a new hero.

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From the September 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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