The Light It Up Contest: Hacking the PlayStation 3

It was a cry of defiance, a howl of geek rage. Uploaded to YouTube on February 12, 2011, the rap anthem railed against restraints on technical experimentation. With the throw-down title of “The Light It Up Contest,” it recounted the battle between the young hacker George Hotz—better known as GeoHot—and the Sony corporation: “Yo, it’s GeoHot. And for those who don’t know, I’m getting sued by Sony.”

GeoHot became famous in 2007 as the first person to jailbreak an Apple iPhone. For an encore, he decided to liberate the Sony PlayStation 3. He began investigating the OtherOS function, which allowed users to install a different operating system. By January 22, 2010, GeoHot had discovered an exploit: “I have read/write access to the entire system memory, and HV [hypervisor] level access to the processor. In other words, I have hacked the PS3” (Hotz). Fearing software piracy, Sony quickly pushed a firmware update to erase the OtherOS feature from all PlayStation 3 units. Without OtherOS, however, the console could hardly live up to its marketing promises (“It Only Does Everything”).

A year later, using the fail0verflow hacking group’s research, GeoHot figured out the console’s metldr root key (a low-level decryption key in the system hardware required for running code at higher levels). He published it on his website, and he also showed that he could execute homebrew code as legitimate PS3 software. To spread the fun, he released his jailbreak firmware to the world.

That was the trigger, the final straw. Sony filed a lawsuit against GeoHot and two members of fail0verflow, as well as one hundred “John Does” (unidentified supporters and accomplices). The court ordered GeoHot to purge all PlayStation information from his websites and to relinquish his computers to Sony lawyers. Sony demanded server records from Bluehost, Google, Twitter, and YouTube to identify people who viewed GeoHot’s materials or discussed jailbreaking the PlayStation hardware.

Indignant, GeoHot composed his cri de coeur, the hip-hop epic of “The Light It Up Contest.” In the video, he fashioned himself as an avatar of high-tech liberty (“I’m the personification of freedom for all”). Using a metaphor of corporate rape, he suggested that whatever the company whipped out, he could take it—and even rise to the challenge (“Pound me in the ass with no lube, chafing”). He sang of resurgence from the bottom, reminding the corporation of its vulnerabilities (“You’re fucking with the dude who got the keys to your safe”) and the likelihood of backlash against its oppressive actions: “Exhibit this in the courtroom. Go on, do it, I dare you.”

Hackers around the world took notice—and many vowed revenge. Anonymous launched Operation Sony, a prolonged series of DDoS attacks and street-level protests. GeoHot reached a settlement with Sony on April 11, 2011, but the hacker onslaught continued. Other hackers broke into PlayStation Network servers and stole millions of user records. Sony shut the network down for twenty-four days as a security measure. The company took a huge financial hit during the network shut down, even before all the lawsuits from customers whose data had been compromised or who resented the removal of OtherOS. Although several hackers were arrested for participating in the cyberattacks, Sony was left deeply scathed by the conflict.

So it remains a question: who actually won the Light It Up Contest?

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