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Opinion: hacking Apple TV

Mod your Apple TV, just for fun

We've only just seen the release of the Apple TV, Apple's media-streaming box, but hackers across the world have already been able to turn the £199 multimedia box into a fully fledged computer.

The Apple TV comes with a stripped-down version of Apple's OS X, but retains many of its basic features, such as directory structure and file format.

Hacking the Apple TV is the latest in a series of hardware hacks on multimedia devices, including the Xbox 360 and the US-based DVR (digital video recorder), TiVo. Each time, hackers hope to extend functionality of the device beyond its original intent.

In just over a week, hackers have been able to upgrade the Apple TV's 40GB hard drive (derided by many as being too small for any serious media collection) and enable SSH (secure shell access) to the machine, among other things. Most recently and the most practical hack so far to date (announced on 29 March) is to enable the USB port, which had been disabled by Apple in software.

Complete instructions

One of the first people to detail a set of complete instructions for upgrading the Apple TV's hard drive was Ben Drawbaugh of Tampa, Florida, a contributing editor at the popular tech blog Engadget. PC Advisor's sister publication MacWorld.com also has a well-illustrated how-to.

"Once I got the thing apart, I plugged it into my Mac and I realised that it was basically another Mac hard drive and I could recognise most of the partitions," Drawbaugh said.

By the end of the day on 23 March, Drawbaugh had detailed precise step-by-step instructions as to how to copy the operating system to a local machine, which then allowed him to format the drive and then recopy the data to a larger disk.

The next step after upgrading the drive that many Apple TV fans are doing is enabling secure shell access. SSH, as it is commonly known, is a method by which it is possible to execute instructions on a remote machine over a network.

Enabling SSH is important because Apple made it difficult to interact with the Apple TV with a keyboard and mouse. As such, SSH circumvents this roadblock and enables power administrator-level access.

A pair of hackers from the website forums on SomethingAwful.com are generally credited with being the first ones to figure out how to enable SSH on the Apple TV. They announced their find on 23 March.

One of them, Daniel Weatherford, a 20-year-old software engineer in Palo Alto, California, who goes by the online handle "Sabretooth" said he found installing SSH to be surprisingly easy. He used Dropbear, an open-source SSH server.

"We actually first were going to enable the built-in Mac OS SSHD [SSH Daemon], but it wasn't on the drive, so that was the second choice," he said. "We probably could've just copied over the proper files for SSHD, but this was easier, since Dropbear is a single statically-linked binary that requires no extra configuration files."

SSH comes standard on every Mac, but Windows users can easily download it.

It's really an Intel Mac

Given that the Apple TV is, at its core, an Intel Mac capable of running Windows software via virtualisation software such as Parallels, it may also soon be possible to run Windows applications directly on the Apple TV, and/or to access Windows network volumes directly.

With SSH out of the way, it was a simple matter of time before various applications ranging from the practical (Firefox), to the impractical (World of Warcraft) were confirmed to run on the Apple TV.

Nick Ippolito, an 18-year-old who lives outside Washington DC and goes by the online handle "ipp", wrote up one of the first complete guides to enable SSH and VNC (virtual network control), which allows for users on another computer on the same local network to gain complete access of the machine.

However, Ippolito made one interesting discovery by accident.

On the morning of 29 March, he and some others from TutorialNinjas.net who had been modding their Apple TVs discovered that they were unable to SSH into their boxes as they had been previously.

Gritty details

He posted: "Several of us over in the Awkward TV IRC(l0rdr0ck, myself, and others) have had our Mod'd Apple TV's played with over night(SSH/VNC disabled), our guess is apple has started to fight back the mod'd Apple TV's. This is a warning to all of you to block your Apple TV from the internet by going into your routers settings and denying it internet access!"

Ippolito later said that it seemed more likely that there was some sort of internal script running on Apple TV that was designed to clean up unauthorised changes made to the box.

"[The Apple TV] told itself to execute a file repair script or change the permissions," he said. "We're not saying Apple did it but it's weird that all five of us had it happen at the same time. I had to take the hard drive back out and fix the permissions [to regain control]."

Apple did not return repeated requests for comment by phone or email.

Just for fun

For now, there aren't very many tangible benefits to hacking the Apple TV. But that hasn't stopped Drawbaugh, who is currently working on a way to hack the Apple TV without opening up the case and taking out the hard drive.

"Hacks don't have to be practical, they have to be enjoyable," he said.


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