The Hidden Risks of Demo Discs

One demo disc handed out by Sony completely erased its users' PS2 memory cards. And with people sharing information via optical media more and more, will this return as a popular method for introducing Trojans and viruses?

In mid-November, members of Sonys PlayStation Underground received the Holiday Demo Disc and discovered that after executing one of the game demos on the disc, their PS2 memory cards were completely erased. While that doesnt mean much to nongamers, for anyone who has spent 40-plus hours building a character in a role-playing game or playing through a season of football—well, its a huge boot in the trousers.

The sampler disc was sent via mail to members of the PlayStation Underground, an opt-in promotional group that Sony calls a "personal link to all the insider info from the PlayStation world."

Ryan Bowling, public relations manager for Sony Computer Entertainment America, said Sony responded to the situation by sending out warning e-mails to PlayStation Underground subscribers telling them to remove their memory cards before playing the demo.

"It is unfortunate that it happened," Bowling said, "and were going to make sure it doesnt happen again."

But what does this mean for the rest of us?

Theres more to the story than a handful of gamers losing their saved game files. The implications of such a glitch can be huge, especially as consumers start to set up networked computing systems in their homes, complete with routers, networks and servers. Minus cubicles and a water cooler, its the equivalent of a small enterprise network.

Rick Fleming, chief technology officer at Digital Defense Inc., said that although most consumers dont realize it, game consoles are computers that run off their own proprietary operating systems. As a result, a bug in a demo CD, CD-ROM or DVD-ROM could affect the rest of a home network and spread to an enterprise network through a VPN connection or portable storage devices.

"PlayStation and Xbox are being networked with home computers … so I can easily see how something like that would spread across a network," Fleming said. "Every time you connect to something else, theres another opportunity for something to go wrong."

Trouble within the Firewall

The idea that a removable disk can affect an entire networked system seems almost quaint, reserved for corporate spoofs such as "Office Space," in which the protagonists use a program on a 3.5-inch floppy disk to steal money from their company. Nowadays, companies and consumers focus on outside threats, assuming theyre sitting pretty behind Internet firewalls and anti-virus programs.

"Its like theyll leave the windows and sliding glass doors open," Fleming said. "Not the front door, though. Its vaulted shut."

While there are few recent instances of companies sending out software with embedded viruses, it still happens on occasion. In 2002, Microsoft sent out a .Net developer disk infected with the Nimda virus, although Microsoft says it didnt actually spread to any machines.

In the entertainment sector, AOL Time-Warner released a "Powerpuff Girls" DVD in 2001 that contained the peevish "FunLove" virus, which spread to users who played the disc on PC.

In an earlier echo of the PlayStation Underground incident, MacAddict magazine sent out a demo with a version of the Auto-Start virus. In most of these cases, the problems were easily fixed, but is still a signifier that seemingly innocent CDs sent out by reputable companies can contain malicious content.

Next Page: Are Trojans and viruses on the way?