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Hackers Take Down Sony's PlayStation Network

Chris Morris|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 25 Apr 2011 | 1:00 PM ET

Hackers have managed to cut Sony off at the knees in several of the most competitive aspects of this generation of video games.

PlayStation 3
Source: Sony
PlayStation 3

For the past five days, the PlayStation Network has been offline—making it impossible for PlayStation 3 owners to play multiplayer games, download updates to titles or use their PS3 to stream movies and music. This represents the most serious outage the service has faced since its start in 2006.

The company has acknowledged, via its official blog, that the disruption was initially caused by an "external intrusion." To ensure future security and figure out exactly what happened, Sony says it turned off both the PlayStation Network and the Qriocity music service on the evening of April 20.

The company says it is not yet certain if credit card or other personal information of users was taken during the intrusion.

Sony says the attack has led it to begin rebuilding the system and it has not given an estimate when it will be back online.

"Our efforts to resolve this matter involve re-building our system to further strengthen our network infrastructure," said Patrick Seybold, senior director of corporate communications, on the blog. "Though this task is time-consuming, we decided it was worth the time necessary to provide the system with additional security. … I know [players] are waiting for additional information on when PlayStation Network and Qriocity services will be online. Unfortunately, I don’t have an update or timeframe to share at this point in time."

So far, no hacker group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The rogue group known as Anonymous, which has famously launched attacks on both Gene Simmons and Hustler Magazine, was initially suspected, after it vowed in early April to target Sony after the company's legal action against a hacker who dismantled the PS3's security.

The group managed to disrupt the service with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack earlier this month. (Anonymous attackers, using software known as “Low Orbit Ion Cannons,” repeatedly pinged the company's servers. When done simultaneously by enough users, this can bring the site down—usually quickly and without warning.)

However, Anonymous denies responsibility for this incident, saying on its site, "While it could be the case that other Anons have acted by themselves, AnonOps was not related to this incident and does not take responsibility for whatever has happened."

The outage of the PlayStation Network hits Sony at a particularly bad time from a game sales perspective. The company released last week "SOCOM 4," a multiplayer-focused action game that is traditionally one of its biggest franchises.

Additionally, the eagerly anticipated "Portal 2," which comes with a co-operative mode, also hit store shelves last week—with an integration of Valve's Steam online service into the PlayStation Network being touted as one of the chief reasons to opt for the PS3 version of the game, rather than the Xbox 360 version.

Richard Lawler, a senior editor at Engadget, summed up gamer's frustration via Twitter, writing "PS3 version of Portal 2 came with a PC version and cross-plat[form] play! Xbox 360 version comes with a working online service."

The outage gives Microsoft an advantage in the online gaming space, as its Xbox Live service has not been compromised. Unlike Microsoft, which requires a $60 annual subscription fee for access to most features of its Xbox Live service, Sony does not charge most users for access to the PlayStation Network. (A PlayStation Plus program is available, giving early access to demos, priority invitations to game beta tests and discounts on products in its online store.)

That will prevent it from having to issue substantial refunds, but that might be small consolation to users who pay subscription fees to companies like Hulu Plus and Netflix , using the PS3 to view streaming content.

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