Nov 21 2010

Devil’s Advocate: The Microsoft Kinect Hacks

Mark

One of the sexist hardware hacking projects in the recent past has been the effort to open up Microsoft’s Kinect sensor bar to allow its control via USB from your personal computer. On November 7, a hacker claimed the USD $2,000 bounty for an open-sourced driver. It’s all standard (albeit cool) stuff. Microsoft’s reactions to the hacks and the community’s reaction to Microsoft’s reactions to the hacks where what caught my real attention. Shortly after the driver was announced, Microsoft made the following terse statement to CNET:

“Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products. With Kinect, Microsoft built in numerous hardware and software safeguards designed to reduce the chances of product tampering. Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.”

On every site I frequent for my technology news, the bias against Microsoft for this statement ran toward loud scoffing. Because, obviously, the software giant was making noise about the horse bolting after the fact. There were winks, nudges, grins (of the smug and shit-eating varieties), outright smirks, sly smiles, laughter, chuckles, mocker, derision, insults, and some spots of outright abuse. I at least hope to think that I took Microsoft’s initial hard stance a little more seriously, and I want to play devil’s advocate for a few minutes while I relate what I perceive as their reasons:

  1. Liability

    Every single piece of hardware that you purchase today has one of the below statements either stickered on the back or boldly noted in the accompanying documentation:

    No user serviceable parts within.
    Warranty void if tampered.
    Caution! Risk of electrical shock!

    Why? It isn’t just the cost of replacing user-destroyed hardware that might otherwise arise. No, it is Little Johnny Hacker who takes his brand-new Kinect home from the store, pops it open to see what is inside; in the process of applying solder to wires he somehow, tragically electrocutes himself. The headlines are going to read nothing but, “Microsoft’s Kinect killed poor Johnny Hacker!” The publicity stinks, but Microsoft can very fairly say that it wasn’t their responsibility.

  2. Intellectual Property.

    Maybe the more pressing reason. Microsoft has created custom hardware and software that, shocker, remains the property of Microsoft. When hackers crack open their Kinect they are potentially stealing this property and disseminating it. Yes, you can be prosecuted and yes, you can go to jail or be massively fined, jurisdiction dependent. At a really-guys-we-are-serious-about-this level, Microsoft doesn’t care all that much if people pirate Office or Windows 7 because it keeps them within the Microsoft ecosystem. If, however, they started trafficking in the source code for these products, Microsoft’s very own trade secrets are being opened up for all the world. People could conceivably use this to create a competitor product or (worse) open up Microsoft to liability from within and without.

  3. Creative control.

    This is the reason I most personally associate with, as a content (photography) producer myself: When you do Other Things to your Kinect, you aren’t receiving the full and intended Kinect experience. This is hugely important. To offer you a living example:

    I have found my Creative Commons-licensed images pop up in many strange and uniqe places, places that include in one example an fundamentalist Islamic prayer group. They were, thankfully, fundamentalist in the sense that they wanted to return to Muhammad’s original message, instead of blowing up the infidels. However, for a very long while before I received an authoritative clarification, I was honestly uncomfortable with my image being used on their website because:

    I’m irreligious; I don’t want to appear to be tacitly endorsing any faith.
    They are possibly militantly extremist; what might befall me if they should come to light in a negative manner?

    Microsoft’s fears are parallel to what mine were: If people begin to modify their Kinect hardware, it could potentially be embarrassing for the company as a whole. Home-made, three-dimensional, motion-captured porn, coming soon to a torrent near you courtesy of Kinect. It isn’t the end of the would, but it could be a true egg-on-your-face moment.

It isn’t all bad. On Friday ( November 19), a second statement from Microsoft’s Kinect developers demonstrated a remarkable change in outlook:

“Kinect was not actually hacked. Hacking would mean that someone got to our algorithms that sit inside of the Xbox and was able to actually use them. Which hasn’t happened. Or, it means that you put a device between the sensor and the Xbox for means of cheating, which also has not happened. That’s what we call hacking, and that’s what we put a ton of work and effort in to make sure doesn’t actually occur.

“What has happened is someone wrote a open source driver for PCs, which essentially opens the USB connection, which we didn’t protect by design, and reads the inputs from the sensor.”

My guess is that between the first and second statements Microsoft very intensively looked at what their liability might be, and what the intellectual property loss might be, in relation to the Kinect hacks.

So, there you go. Five minutes of devil’s advocacy on the hacks.