US arrests suspected hackers accused of video game piracy

A Nintendo Switch controller. (Garrett Coakley / Flickr)

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The alleged leaders of an international video game piracy group apparently didn’t do enough to protect their scheme from the prying eyes of the feds.

The Department of Justice says two men have been arrested on felony charges of helping run Team Xecuter, which sold modification kits and other tools that allowed users of the Nintendo Switch and other gaming devices to play pirated versions of games.

The federal indictment charges Canadian national Gary Bowser, French national Max Louarn and Chinese national Yuanning Chen with 11 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in connection with Team Xecuter.

The indictment does not link the three men to any other hacking groups. In many ways, though, the Justice Department’s approach to charging them mirrors other recent efforts to accuse and apprehend foreigners in cybercrime cases involving financial fraud or cyber-espionage.

Team Xecuter, which claims to have been in operation since 2002, used “a wide variety of brands, websites, and distribution channels … to protect the overall enterprise in the event that one device or brand were to be targeted by gaming companies, financial institutions, and law enforcement,” according to the indictment filed in the Western District of Washington.

Those methods included end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as Signal or Telegram, as well as other technology that “allowed members to remain anonymous or immune from legal enforcement actions, such as reverse proxies and bulletproof hosting providers.”

Bowser, 51, aka “GaryOPA,” appeared in a federal court in New Jersey on Friday, the Justice Department said. Louarn, 48, aka “MAXiMiLiEN,” is in custody overseas, the government said, while Chen, 35, who had various aliases online, remains at large. The U.S. government is seeking Louarn’s extradition, but the statement did not specify where he is currently being held.

The indictment does not specify how prosecutors were able to identify the accused men, but it describes how investigators initially picked up on Team Xecuter’s trail.

In March 2020 the feds installed one of the group’s tools for jailbreaking the Switch, the SX OS, onto a few of the consoles. Consoles with SX OS installed “connected with, and evaded detection by, servers that Nintendo maintained to authenticate legitimate use of Nintendo hardware and software,” the indictment says.

The activation process for SX OS “subsequently caused the Switch consoles to connect to servers in Portland, Oregon, that Nintendo maintained to facilitate the internet connectivity of consoles being used for legitimate purposes,” the indictment says. “Subsequently, the consoles connected to reverse proxy servers outside of Washington State that the enterprise used to shield the location of its actual servers.”

The statement from the Justice Department says Team Xecuter has about a dozen members overall, and it notes the global economic impact of piracy on the multibillion-dollar video game industry, which has only expanded as many people stay close to home during the coronavirus pandemic. Prosecutors differentiate the group’s for-profit model with other game-console hacking efforts, in which hobbyists jailbreak the devices so they can install homemade games on them. At times, Team Xecuter tried to “cloak its illegal activity with a purported desire to support homebrew enthusiasts who wanted to design their own games,” the indictment says.

Besides the Switch, the Justice Department says Team Xecuter was known for targeting the Nintendo 3DS, the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Edition, the Sony PlayStation Classic, and the Microsoft Xbox.

The indictment is available in full below.

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bulletproof hosting, Department of Justice (DOJ), indictment, internet piracy, jailbreak, legal, Nintendo, video games, Western District of Washington
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