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Xbox 360 credit card slurp alert under fire

Sniffing wiped privates not possible says Microsoft

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Doubts have arisen over claims that credit card numbers and other personal information can be recovered from used Xbox 360 consoles - even after users take the precaution of restoring their kit to its factory settings.

Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia bought a refurbished Xbox 360 from a Microsoft-authorised reseller, and accessed files and folders on the box's hard disk after using widely available "modding" software, which is normally used to run home-brew or pirated software on the consoles. The academics claimed they were subsequently able to extract a previous owner's credit card details and other private information.

However Microsoft and an independent security expert have said credit card details are not held locally on the console. In a statement, Microsoft said it was in the process of investigating the allegations. In the meantime it defended the general security offered by its Xbox gear:

We are conducting a thorough investigation into the researchers' claims. We have requested information that will allow us to investigate the console in question and have still not received the information needed to replicate the researchers' claims.

Xbox is not designed to store credit card data locally on the console, and as such seems unlikely credit card data was recovered by the method described. Additionally, when Microsoft refurbishes used consoles we have processes in place to wipe the local hard drives of any other user data. We can assure Xbox owners we take the privacy and security of their personal data very seriously.

Taken at face value, the Drexel exercise appears to illustrate that the risk of residual data on computer hard disks and mobile phones also applies to gaming consoles. Information lingers on disk surfaces after files are deleted from file system records, for example, unless extra effort is made to sufficiently overwrite or simply physically destroy the data.

Researcher Ashley Podhradsky said Microsoft was doing a disservice to gamers in not highlighting the potential risk, consumer technology site Kotaku reports.

Podhradsky advises privacy-conscious gamers to remove the hard drive from an XBox and wipe it using a data-scrubbing program before giving away or sell their old console.

Chris Boyd, senior threat researcher at GFI Software, and an expert in gaming security, disputed the researchers' conclusions that credit card data might be lifted from used XBox consoles.

"At present there's a lack of information from both the university where the research took place and also from Microsoft who are continuing to investigate the claims," Boyd told El Reg.

"Credit card data isn't stored locally on the console, and there are so many console hacking and modding forums around that if a method did exist to pull this information then I'd be surprised it isn't already public knowledge.

"However, it also seems unlikely the researchers simply recovered an Xbox account from an incorrectly formatted drive then used that to access stored payment details, given the precise nature of their claims. Console owners should use prepaid cards wherever possible with set limits attached, and only buy Microsoft points when they're about to redeem them - having large amounts of points sitting against any account for a long period of time is always a risky move."

We asked Podhradsky for a clearer explanation of the methodology applied by the Drexel team but are yet to receive a reply. ®

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