Interview coordinated by Tom “20mm” Hayden
When we were in Los Angeles for E3 earlier this year, we took the opportunity of introducing ourselves to the representatives of StarForce. We talked with them about their software protection technology and it’s application to the sims we enjoy. We asked if they would consider answering a representative list of member questions, and they agreed.
You may recall, we posted threads in several forums asking for your responses. And respond you did! Over 80 questions just in those threads, which doesn’t count all the spontaneous StarForce threads in several places around the site. We put together the list and sent it to StarForce. Please keep in mind we were not able to ask every single individual question. For example, some were very similar and were summarized as one. Also, StarForce has asked that questions which are hardware specific be addressed to them directly via the links in the interview. We hope you understand that there are literally thousands of individual hardware/software configurations and combinations all over the world, and that this does not lend itself well to capsulation in an interview.
Our hope was to get you, our members, the facts and information straight from the source. It is part of our commitment to you to be the best simulation Internet site we can be.**We’re glad to be able to fulfill that commitment and present the information to you now. We want to acknowledge the cooperation of StarForce in this effort and thank them for their time in addressing these concerns.
General Issues and Concerns
Q: Does StarForce have a higher track record of games not being cracked than the copy protection competition such as SecuRom or Safedisc?
StarForce: We monitor the titles we protect throughout their lifecycle, and keep track of the protection successes and cracks. Although the protection strength is always a matter of publisher’s decision, technically StarForce’s approach has proved to be much more effective when compared to other copy protection systems. We do have a solid record of hit titles which have not been pirated ever since release (take, for example Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (Ubisoft), Soldier: Heroes of WW2 (Codemasters), Lock On Flaming Cliffs (Eagle Dynamics)), and this is a very notable result. When the same title is protected using technologies by different copy protection vendors, the other protections get cracked, not StarForce.
Q: StarForce disables certain functions of other software which I have legally purchased, such as virtual drive software, CD/DVD backup and creation software. It is not acceptable to me that a protection system from one software program I buy should have bad effects on other software I have on my machine. In addition, it installs various drivers on my system without my knowing what it is doing. I object strenuously to both of these situations.
StarForce: The StarForce protection does not contain any technologies to disable certain features on commercial software by third-party providers. Our principle is to prohibit launching PROTECTED software if we notice it’s being executed under a debugger or using any emulation tools.
Lately our Customer Service receives has received some requests from customers saying that after installing a certain StarForce protected product, the disc burning software starts functioning improperly. The problem with such requests is that those happen very rarely on some specific software-hardware configurations, so it has been very hard to even reproduce this type of problems. At the moment we are doing a very serious job investigating the matter, and any help from people facing such issues is more than welcome. So if you have experienced anything of the described above, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
StarForce: As for drivers, so they do not do any harm to the system, and as with any other commercial software are a part of the product you purchase as well as the protection is. You will find more information on SF drivers below.
Q: Does StarForce intend to introduce a better implementation to the marketplace such that the scope of the interaction of their product with the user’s system is no greater than the game (an application) that was purchased? Specifically an implementation that will require no memory resident and executing software when the game itself is not loaded into memory?
StarForce: Many applications, including antiviral packages, firewalls, system utilities, etc. require a special driver to operate. The driver is required to provide advanced functionality, which surpasses standard capabilities of the operating system, for example, in antivirus packages it’s used to filter file system events.
As copy protection is a complicated system as well, and operates on the low level, it’s only natural that it requires a special system driver. Protection drivers are used in any advanced modern copy protection system, including Macrovision, StarForce, etc. Sometimes, copy protection providers use alternative approaches, like, for instance, system services by Sony’s SecuROM 7.
Protection drivers can be used in either of the two cases: to prevent using the disk emulation software (e.g. Alcohol, Daemon Tools, etc.) or withstand the application’s behavior analysis using debuggers (both user- and system-mode). Like other systems, some versions of the StarForce protection utilize a driver, which allows the protected application to resist the most effective hacker attacks. There are several types of StarForce drivers, each responsible for a certain part of protection functionality.
Those drivers are necessary for the StarForce specific CD/DVD checking procedure and anti-debugging. In the applications featuring online activation the drivers are used to lock the product license to the user’s hardware configuration. The drivers do not include any hidden functionality and are active only at execution of the protected application. It’s impossible to launch the protected application without drivers installed. The StarForce drivers are indeed installed with the game and remain in the memory as long as the protected software is installed on the computer. Unfortunately, due to the drivers’ architecture specifics it’s impossible to load drivers at game’s launch and unload them when exiting the game, so they remain in memory until removed (either with the game or manually). The drivers take very little space (less than a half of a usual driver size) and remain inactive unless the protected product is running, which does not harm the system. Still, we constantly improve drivers; the latest version of our drivers is available here.
Q: In the case where a developer goes out of business and doesn’t release a modification to allow it’s software users to change the limited activation’s feature, would StarForce be able to assist?
StarForce: In order to provide high quality and timely service, StarForce has developed its activation module to be totally autonomous from the game developers and the entire protection process, both technically and organizationally. Adding activation does not involve modifications in the game and can be performed by any tech. support person in charge of this particular product.
Thus, to reactivate the application, even if the developer goes out of business, end users can contact the publisher’s Support for another Serial Number. And, of course, StarForce Customer Support is always able to assist with this. Although it’s important to remember that, in order to protect the copyright, the person contacting Support will be requested to confirm he is eligible for such an update (legally owns the product license).
Q: Has the StarForce copy protection scheme ever been cited by security alert organizations for containing flaws which could be used to compromise system security.
StarForce: No, never. StarForce does not compromise system security. We thoroughly test our technologies for security flaws and StarForce has proven to be a stable and high quality product.
Q: Several members have stated their objection in principle, saying that it presupposes guilt on the part of the purchaser in advance of any crime being committed. U.S. customers have an expectation of “right to privacy.” Therefore, they feel that StarForce makes these customers uncomfortable because it assumes that what they do within that privacy is illegal.
StarForce: StarForce is a provider of the copyright protection technology utilized by software developers and publishers. The technology itself does not presuppose guilt on the part of the purchaser — it’s merely a technical tool designed to secure intellectual property.
Let’s draw an analogy. As protection, locks protect your property from unauthorized use, right? Does that mean that leaving your car on the parking locked, you presuppose guilt on the part of your neighbor? No, by locking your car you simply take security measures necessary in today’s society. Does the lock producer presuppose your neighbor’s guilt?
Today we all should realize that protection is designed to not only protect the rights of software providers allowing them to significantly increase revenue (revenue that goes onto further product development), but the customer’s rights as well. Buying protected software the user may be confident in the quality of the product he gets. On the other hand, the protection is a guarantee that customers get clean and secure product. Nobody can say what the pirated copy brings onto your machine in addition to the software it says it does (viruses, Trojans, etc.). How do you prevent the product piracy? By using a strong protection.
Today we all need to understand that software protection providers do not act to claim users’ guilt, but develop products that actually work for the end user’s good.
Q: Inability to make backup copies of StarForce protected software is a big issue. I always make a backup disc of whatever I buy for sake keeping, and I consider that to be part of the fair and legitimate use of the product I paid for. What can be done about this?
Q: Is StarForce developing or considering developing the ability for a user to make and use a backup copy of a game rather than the original CD/DVD? I would not find the answer ‘you can get the damaged CD/DVD replaced via the publisher’ to be a satisfactory answer.
Q: Is there any way StarForce could allow a piece of legitimately purchased software to be run by the user without the CD in the drive? Many consumers are worried about possible damage to their CD and want to protect it.
StarForce: We have developed the StarForce ProActive technology which is based on the software license activation approach and does not depend on the physical characteristics of the licensed media. The software protected using ProActive can be delivered on any media or via the Internet, as well as copied to any media, and the copies will be workable once activated using a Serial Number provided by a software publisher. Today, more and more publishers are using StarForce ProActive along with traditional disc copy protection systems.
Traditional copy protections, including StarForce Professional and Basic for optical media, feature disc binding that prevents creation of product copies. The license in this case is locked to the physical characteristics of the original media. These characteristics cannot be copied to a backup disc, that’s why copies of protected products are not workable. Though if the original disc gets damaged, the end user can always contact product Customer Support or StarForce Support for a “Rescue Key”, which will lock the product license to hardware parameters of the his PC.
Q: Several members have concerns regarding the warning on the outside of the software package. While they realize this particular problem needs to be addressed by software publishers, customers with no previous knowledge of what StarForce is or how it works are not getting fair information BEFORE they make their purchase. The EULA is not adequate because you won’t be able to see that until after the purchase has been made. Is there anything that StarForce can do in conjunction with the publishers to make things more clear and upfront for the users before they buy?
I disagree that it is up to the publisher to list all compatible/incompatible drives on the cover of the DVD case, I do think it is imperative to say what copy protection is used (including the version number). That way, people who do have unusual hardware can at least check on a web site for compatibility issues before making the purchase. I agree that once software has been bought, it is usually (and understandably) impossible to return it.
StarForce: We would love to see the StarForce logo on all titles protected by our technology and do encourage publishers to put in onto the game box. But we cannot force publishers to include it if they don’t feel it is appropriate. I disagree that it is impossible to return software after purchase. All software retail chains in the US, for example, do have a sound return policy. Of course this has to be the original disc (unfortunately, still up to 40% of end user requests StarForce Customer Support receives monthly come from people trying to illegally launch the software product, but such users are easily identified).
Drivers Vulnerability Issue Clarification
Q: There was a security issue with a previous version of StarForce that allowed access to what should be protected kernel level space. What steps are StarForce taking to prevent such problems in the future?
StarForce: The old version of StarForce drivers did indeed allow executing code using Administrator rights for its purposes. We would like to clarify some points. What we see here is that drivers may be accessed by any application. This application gets Administrator privileges and is not hampered by OS security as it would have been if being run with normal or low rights. This issue has happened before with some companies, and it was never a “critical” security matter (see here for details).
Symantec has faced the same issue with its Norton AntiVirus Device Driver back in 2003, and the vulnerability was classified as “Less critical” (see here).
It is well-known that the overwhelming majority of home users work under Administrator accounts all the time, thus this driver vulnerability does not affect them at all, as any application run will work with Administrator rights by default. This is significant only for business workstations working with common user rights. Going further we see that there are no complex StarForce protected games on business workstations, therefore this problem is valid only for office computers that have business applications protected with StarForce using the drivers (yet most of the time business applications are protected without drivers).
StarForce immediately delivered a patch to fix the vulnerability, and no application was protected using this flawed version of StarForce drivers since January 2005. For the applications released earlier, respective updates were provided by software publishers.
Specific Issues, Windows 32-bit / 64-bit
Q: How will games using StarForce on 32 bit Windows function in the Win64 environment? Does the StarForce copy protection drivers themselves need to be updated separately and apart from any actual game patches? In other words must the consumer now keep track themselves of StarForce copy-protection updates AND game updates as well? If this is true, what does this represent for the future use of games utilizing the StarForce copy protection system as Operating Systems and drivers advance, and as Publishers stop supporting older titles with publisher sanctioned updates?
StarForce: Many copy protection packages require a set of special protection drivers to operate. Due to huge differences in the architecture between 32-bit and 64-bit platforms, the 32-bit protection drivers won’t work on 64-bit systems, ensuring that the game won’t launch.
Like other systems, StarForce protection utilizes drivers allowing it to thoroughly secure the game data, and to prevent the analysis of the application’s code. Using that driver, StarForce provides increased defense capabilities, blocking the hacker’s attempts to tamper with the game core by running it under a debugger. To ensure the x64 support, the publisher should deliver his games with a x64 version of the StarForce protection.
Q: I have SH3 and I have recently upgraded to Win64 XP. The present StarForce does not work under Win64 XP. Do they have a 64-bit version of StarForce? If so, where can I download it or does Ubisoft need to implement a patch for SH3? I cannot play SH3 until this problem is corrected.
StarForce: We have released a 64-bit version of StarForce drivers back in the end of May 2005. Get themhere.
StarForce x64 support is automatically included in the version 3.5 of StarForce. For the previously released games the publisher should add the 64-bit support by producing a special patch and making it available for his customers. So once Ubisoft releases a patch, you will be able to enjoy the game run on Windows 64-bit.
CD/DVD Issues and Problems
Q: Are hardware incompatibility with CD/DVD drives and burners, or Hard disks more likely because of the way in which StarForce attempts to control access to a system’s drives,as opposed to a competing Copy Protection scheme such as SecuROM?
StarForce: StarForce’s protection algorithms are more complicated comparing to approaches used by competitors. They provide better security against software cracking and emulation. Although, as with any software, better security has to compromise with certain compatibility matters, which is the case with CD/DVD drives. We do provide a solution though: if the customer owns a drive that refuses to read the StarForce protected disc, he should contact Customer Support for a Rescue Key, which will disable the disc checking procedure and lock the license to the user’s PC.
Q: Where to shall I address issues connected with the protected products I legally own?
StarForce: If you experience a problem running your legally purchased game and believe the issue you have faced may be connected with the protection technology used, please contact StarForce Customer Support directly at: email@example.com.
Make sure to include your MSINFO32 file and the StarForce error report file (if available), along with the detailed description of the problem occurred. To receive the MSINFO32 file, please click Start > Run… and in the Openfield specify the msinfo32 command. For the StarForce error report, please click the Information button in theError dialog (it usually appears at the game launch in case of a problem), and then click the View Report button.
We want your Feedback. Please let us know what you thought of this article here.