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Hackers Inch Ever Closer to Unlocking the Nintendo Switch

Deeper than just a firmware hack.

News by Caty McCarthy, .

When a console's firmware gets hacked, companies sigh everywhere. It's a bad thing for them—they no longer have control over their product, in a way. Just last month, news arose of the PlayStation 4 having an exploit prime for jailbreaking. For the past year, the Nintendo Switch has remained relatively unscathed. Until now.

As spotted by Ars Technica, hackers have made progress not just on cracking the firmware of the Nintendo Switch, but the hardware itself too. The latter part is a huge feat, as hackers Derrek, Plutoo, and Naehrwert explain from the 34th Chaos Communication Congress (34C3) in Leipzig, Germany at the end of December. The hackers cracked the system's decryption key, which is essential for unlocking essential system files. In layman speak: Nintendo just said "uh-oh."

It's not the sort of issue that can be remedied by a software update, say for example a patch for PlayStation 4 that fixes a new known entrypoint for hackers. It's a weakness that works on the Switch's lowest level of system operation, in a way that "can't be patched (in currently released Switches)," according to hacking collective Fail0verflow on Twitter. As per Ars Technica's story, "Fail0verflow's statement suggests its exploit could work on all Switches currently available in the wild and could be counteracted only if Nintendo made changes at the factory production level." That accounts for the big "oh no" that's likely on Nintendo's part.

What such hacks are working towards aren't to pirate Nintendo Switch games, which have their own layers of security. Instead, it's directed more towards running homebrew code on the system. In the meantime, given that the Nintendo Switch is selling far past expectations, if hackers are successful, it might spell trouble regarding how some fiddle with the hardware.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar for moochan #1 moochan A month ago
    Aw poor Nintendo. At least PS4 had a few years without getting majorly hacked. But who knows 3DS was hacked a long time ago yet still sold well and continuing to sell fairly well. Unlike DS and a few other type of hacks where you can easily just buy something to do the job. This you need to download and do actually work. And I feel 99% of people wouldn't bother because most are worried they would either brick the system (which happened to a few 3DS system when they tried to do the hack), or they don't really know technical terms and so a lot of the ways to do it (even if they spelled everything out clearly) would go over their head and they just don't want to bother. But also people who hack to get free games are a small minority in the gaming community. Outside of download old ROMs most people are fine with paying to play games so I don't think Nintendo has that much to worry about but we will have to see.
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  • Avatar for realchris2011 #2 realchris2011 A month ago
    @moochan You can relax, The Switch will do just fine even with hacks, if anything all they will do is improve our security long term, since this always encourages fixes from the company, so like it or not, it's okay!!!
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #3 riderkicker A month ago
    I remember reading that the Nintendo Switch handles firmware updates in a vastly different way than most computers do. There's a series of chips or circuits inside the system that verifies and changes paths every time the system undergoes an update. On regular computers you can easily remove an update because everything is contained in the hard drive, but you can't do the same for the Switch. I guess it must mean that the hackers have bypassed this method completely.
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #4 Wellman2nd A month ago
    The problem with using existing hardware as the basis instead of their own custom design. Hopefully for the sake of security they can limit things, one of the things that hurt them in terms of capitalizing on the success of the Wii and DS was both systems were hacked and became pirating playgrounds midway through their life cycles.
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