George Hotz, previously known as an iPhone hacker, announced that he hacked the Playstation 3 and then provided exploit details. Various articles have been written about this but none of them appear to have analyzed the actual code. Because of the various conflicting reports, here is some more analysis to help understand the exploit.
The PS3, like the Xbox360, depends on a hypervisor for security enforcement. Unlike the 360, the PS3 allows users to run ordinary Linux if they wish, but it still runs under management by the hypervisor. The hypervisor does not allow the Linux kernel to access various devices, such as the GPU. If a way was found to compromise the hypervisor, direct access to the hardware is possible, and other less privileged code could be monitored and controlled by the attacker.
Hacking the hypervisor is not the only step required to run pirated games. Each game has an encryption key stored in an area of the disc called ROM Mark. The drive firmware reads this key and supplies it to the hypervisor to use to decrypt the game during loading. The hypervisor would need to be subverted to reveal this key for each game. Another approach would be to compromise the Blu-ray drive firmware or skip extracting the keys and just slave the decryption code in order to decrypt each game. After this, any software protection measures in the game would need to be disabled. It is unknown what self-protection measures might be lurking beneath the encryption of a given game. Some authors might trust in the encryption alone, others might implement something like SecuROM.
The hypervisor code runs on both the main CPU (PPE) and one of its seven Cell coprocessors (SPE). The SPE thread seems to be launched in isolation mode, where access to its private code and data memory is blocked, even from the hypervisor. The root hardware keys used to decrypt the bootloader and then hypervisor are present only in the hardware, possibly through the use of eFUSEs. This could also mean that each Cell processor has some unique keys, and decryption does not depend on a single global root key (unlike some articles that claim there is a single, global root key).
George’s hack compromises the hypervisor after booting Linux via the “OtherOS” feature. He has used the exploit to add arbitrary read/write RAM access functions and dump the hypervisor. Access to lv1 is a necessary first step in order to mount other attacks against the drive firmware or games.
His approach is clever and is known as a “glitching attack“. This kind of hardware attack involves sending a carefully-timed voltage pulse in order to cause the hardware to misbehave in some useful way. It has long been used by smart card hackers to unlock cards. Typically, hackers would time the pulse to target a loop termination condition, causing a loop to continue forever and dump contents of the secret ROM to an accessible bus. The clock line is often glitched but some data lines are also a useful target. The pulse timing does not always have to be precise since hardware is designed to tolerate some out-of-spec conditions and the attack can usually be repeated many times until it succeeds.------------------------
Very good write-up from Nate on the PS3 hack. If you want to dig into the devil of the details, be sure to follow the link and check out the full article. Good stuff.