Aaron McKenna: StarForce Revisited

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Aaron McKenna: StarForce Revisited

It was early October of last year that I first spoke about copy protection and the ongoing The War on Game Pirates. Since then one of the star examples of that article, StarForce, has gone on to generate a grass roots effort against its use; and a few high-profile headlines after threatening to sue journalists for reporting on the alleged harmful effects of the system.

For those of you not familiar with it, StarForce is a rather belligerent anti-piracy measure which installs a hidden driver onto user’s machines as they install a game using the system. This driver is, as described by Boycott StarForce, a driver which “grants ring 0 (system level) privileges to any code under the ring 3 (user level) privileges.

Thus, any virus or trojan can get OS privileges and totally control your system. Since Windows 2000, the Windows line security and stability got enhanced by separating those privileges, but with the Starforce drivers, the old system holes and instabilities are back and any program (or virus) can reach the core of your system by using the Starforce drivers as a backdoor.”

The methods used by StarForce have also caused more direct and tangible issues, both to your correspondent and users littering technical support forums and the Boycott StarForce campaign. Back in October I reported issues with the copy protection system which sees it locking down optical drives and preventing normal use.

Trawl through the tech support forums of games which use the StarForce system (a list of which can be found here) and you will come across seemingly endless streams of users who have had problems which began after they installed a StarForce protected game. You will also find plenty of people who have had no problems at all, which is where StarForce can lay fair claim to some benefit of the doubt.

Strangely you will also find the odd poster in these discussions who has a near fanatical attitude towards dismissing the claims of others. Odd in itself, but fishy when one considers that StarForce PR employees have been found out whilst posting anonymous comments to stories about the system in places such as Slashdot, seemingly posing as Joe User.

StarForce has also said, in a response to my article in fact, that “According to our research those of users [sic] that do run into compatibility problems are beginner-level-hackers that try to go around our protection system.” This speaks wonders about their technical support attitude.

The strange PR tactics do not stop there. In an effort to stifle the row StarForce issued a competition which would apparently solve the problem once and for all. If a user could come to their Moscow offices and prove to their satisfaction that StarForce causes a problem to users system, they would give out a reward. Reading the fine print many users and publications alike commented that the competition might be considered a bit of a joke.

StarForce, rather predictably, got no takers, and claimed eternal victory. Yet, for some odd reason, people have continued to have problems no doubt coincidentally while StarForce is about.

The final straw, however, and the action which has once again propelled the company into the public light has been the threatening of journalists with lawsuit for reporting on the ill-effects the system causes. StarForce has sent similar letters to both CNET News and Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow, a move which has generated them a lot of publicity of late.

The StarForce issue is one which will rage on for months to come, but some publishers have already pulled the system from their games in response to public outcry. The underlying problem which led to StarForce remains, however, and so the need for copy protection systems will only lead publishers to more extreme systems such as hidden drivers and rootkits in the future.

As long as piracy of videogames exist publishers will have the right to protect their products. As we saw with Sony BMG however, the right to protect ones property has to be counter balanced by the consumer’s right to not have these systems interfere with their lives.

While StarForce has never been tested in a lab to determine it as the cause of the problems so many complain about, the fact remains that across the breadth of games which use the system from a variety of developers and publishers; the problems are the same and the only thing each game has in common that could cause these problems is StarForce. The company stuffing its ears and singing “LALALALA!” at the top of its voice will not change this fact.

The Boycott StarForce campaign website and forum is a good place to get more information on StarForce and the campaign against it.

And while we journalists run around tempting lawsuits and pointing fingers, one shouldn’t forget that this is a grass roots campaign: It was started by guys like Larry “Soulcommander” Freese talking to users and publishers alike in his own time in the Ubisoft technical forums, and William “13thHouR” Taggart going in-depth about how the system works. If nothing else this is a good example of online consumer activism.

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