(WIRED) -- While Apple plays cat-and-mouse games with iPhone jailbreakers, Microsoft is playing a far friendlier game with Xbox Kinect hackers.
Two Microsoft employees went on the radio Friday and said nobody was going to get in trouble for making open source drivers for Xbox Kinect. In fact, they said, Microsoft was "inspired" by how fans and hobbyists were adapting its camera.
Ira Flatow interviewed Microsoft's Shannon Loftis and Alex Kipman, along with NYU prof Katherine Isbister, about the technology behind Kinect along for NPR's Science Friday.
A listener asked on Twitter about the Adafruit-led effort to reverse-engineer and create open source drivers for the device. That led to this exchange:
Ms. Loftis: As an experienced creator, I'm very excited to see that people are so inspired that it was less than a week after the Kinect came out before they had started creating and thinking about what they could do.
Flatow: So no one is going to get in trouble?
Mr. Kipman: Nope. Absolutely not.
Ms. Loftis: No.
Flatow: You heard it right from the mouth of Microsoft. This is a reversal for Microsoft. Just two weeks, ago, a Microsoft representative told CNET that "Microsoft does not condone the modification of its products" and that the company would "work closely with law enforcement and product-safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant."
That prompted electronics hobby-supply company Adafruit to increase its bounty for open source drivers from $1,000 to $3,000 and add a $2,000 donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, just in case Microsoft decided to start suing the pants off of everybody, after all.
Why the turnaround? Clearly, somebody realized that amateur programmers using the Kinect for cool, creative projects was great advertising for Microsoft, while marching in with jackboots and cease-and-desist orders wasn't.
But it also gave Microsoft the ability to clarify precisely how the Kinect had and hadn't been "hacked." As Kipman notes in the NPR interview, "Kinect was not actually hacked," at least in the sense that an insecure website, database or transmission might be hacked:
Hacking would mean that someone got to our algorithms that sit on the side 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 why we have put a ton of work and effort to make sure it doesn't actually occur.
According to Kipman, the USB output that transmits the color, depth, motion and audio detected by the Kinect was left open "by design."
That's an artful way to say that Microsoft's security concerns were -- and are -- elsewhere: Hackers tampering with the cameras to intercept the stream to spy on users, going up the stack to the console or network.
If Kinect is seen as a fun, versatile device for both casual gamers and serious hobbyists, that's great for Microsoft. If Kinect's whole-room camera, robust facial-recognition software, and portal for video and audio chat are seen as insecure, it's a nightmare.
That's why Microsoft came out with a hard-line initial response. Once the company saw how the open source drivers were being used, and what they could and couldn't do, it was easier to officially soften its stance.
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