A Look Back At The Xbox 360’s Hard Drive Security
Anyone who has owned a game console of the last few generations will tell you that the machines are becoming more and more like set-top computers – equipped with USB ports, Bluetooth, removable hard drives and their own online software repositories. But while this overlap theoretically offers significant benefits, such as the ability to use your own USB controller rather than being stuck with the system’s default, manufacturers haven’t always been so accommodating.
Take for example the removable hard drive of the Xbox 360. It was a bog-standard 2.5″ SATA drive inside a fancy case, but as explained by [Eaton], Microsoft has gone to great lengths to prevent the user from upgrading it themselves. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the Redmond giant hadn’t put a huge markup on the stuff; even in 2005 $99 USD for 20GBs was highway robbery.
An Xbox 360 hard drive
So how did the drive lockout work? Genuine Xbox drives had an RSA-signed “security sector” at sector 16, which contained information such as the drive’s serial number, firmware revision, and model number. The RSA signature would prevent tampering with the fields stored in the security sector, and you couldn’t simply copy this sector to a blank disk, because when the console compared the data to what the disk itself reported , it would not match.
Of course, industrious hackers eventually figured out some workarounds. A DOS tool called HDDHackr was created that allowed you to plug whatever identifying information you wanted into drives from Western Digital. All one had to do was grab a copy of a security sector from the more sore parts of the internet, spoof the values it contained to the drive with HDDHackr, and you were golden. There’s reason to believe that Microsoft could have detected this – hundreds or thousands of Xbox consoles dialing into the mothership with identical serial drive serial numbers was certainly a red flag – but apparently no action was ever taken to stop it.
Later, once it was possible to modify the console’s firmware with JTAG access, the RSA check on the security sector was figured out, basically allowing you to use whatever drive you wanted. But this is where Microsoft seems to have drawn the line, as modifying your console in this way meant you could no longer sign in to Xbox Live.
By modifying the security sector data, you can spoof drive information.
As an interesting side effect of the ability to change the security sector, [Eton] note that it is possible to replace the Microsoft logo with whatever image you want, which will appear on the console when you check the drive’s capacity. Why is a logo stored on the disc at all? He theorizes Microsoft may have planned to have third-party companies produce, in which case you would have seen their logo instead. However, this is only a guess, because in the end Microsoft was the only company that produced drives for the 360.
These days, Sony allows you to install your own M.2 SSD in the PS5, and even the traditionally tech-adverse Nintendo will let you store your games on generic SD cards. However, the situation hasn’t changed much for Microsoft, as their latest Series X console uses custom NVMe-based storage devices that only Seagate makes. That said, they have taken a significantly more enlightened approach to letting the user use their own software on the console, which is definitely a step in the right direction.