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Nobody likes cheaters. I was playing Call of Duty: Warzone recently with my friend Anthony Palma, and he took down another player. That player was completely dead, not wounded. And then the player auto-rezzed, got up, and escaped. Another time, I was hiding in a building, and then I got shot through the walls. This happens frequently. Some players are extraordinarily good at getting headshots.
You can never tell if someone else is just good or cheating. But in Warzone, you can watch players who kill you. And when you see them succeeding by shooting through walls and getting kills, then you know they’re cheating. You can report them, and Activision will ban them. You can also block players, and you’ll get notified if blocked players are in the same lobby as you, so you can vacate that match.
My friend and I aren’t the only ones frustrated by cheaters in Warzone. Jack Frags, a popular Call of Duty YouTuber with 3.6 million subscribers, created videos about the frequency of seeing cheaters in April 2020, and he’s still complaining about it in 2021.
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The company has taken action. In April 2020, Activision’s Infinity Ward studio said it had banned tens of thousands of players who cheated. Infinity Ward announced that players who reported cheaters would be notified in-game when the person was banned. On top of that, Activision said that it would put players suspected of cheating into the same matches so they could all get a dose of their own medicine. That was kind of funny.
But it’s easy to create new accounts in free-to-play games. The cheaters just come back. Warzone itself has grown to more than 80 million players in the past year, and it’s certainly hard to police. And so Activision has to continuously ban cheaters.
On February 2, Activision said it had banned 60,000 cheaters. It announced it had banned 30,000 cheaters on March 16, and then on March 23 it announced it had banned another 13,000. Many players have complained about Aimbots, where cheaters can get a fix on your head instantly, and Wall hacks, where they can see through walls.
“There’s no place for cheating. We’re committed to this cause. We are listening and will not stop in our efforts,” the company said.
On March 24, Activision went a step further and published a report on the cheaters, how they get software for cheating, and how easy it is for hackers to drop malware into the cheating software that players buy. The malware installs itself as if it were doing a simple update to the game or the cheating software.
“This particular tool is considered a dropper, a piece of malware that is used to install or deliver an additional payload, such as credential stealing malware, on a target system or device,” Activision said in its report. “A dropper is a means to an end, rather than the end itself — but still is a critical link in the chain. The dropper examined in this report, ‘Cod Dropper v0.1,’ can be customized to install other, more destructive, malware onto the targets’ machines.”
That’s a pretty troubling thing for companies, as many employees are working from home and they work on the same computers that they use to play games like Warzone. If a downloaded cheat program installs malware on the machine, it could compromise not only the player’s security but the company’s security as well.
One problem is that a cheat program will run with the highest system privileges, and so a cheat with malware will gain control over the whole system. Guides for cheats will typically ask users to disable or uninstall antivirus software and host firewalls, disable kernel code signing, and undo other protections, Activision said.
Activision reminded players in July that it could ban them for modding their games, and a friend of a friend that I played with got banned, apparently because he had some questionable software installed on his machine and was getting lots of wild kills. The cheater sellers have to come out of hiding to advertise and sell their wares to cheaters, and Activision sued one such company in August. But the cheat sellers go underground and come back.
In December 2020, the dropper was also included in a “Black Hat” tutorial aimed at “noobies looking to make some easy money,” or novice hackers who wanted to steal from cybervictims. Activision said. The person who posted the tutorial said the COD Dropper was included as “some nice bait for your first malware project.” Other cheat sellers are more clever about staying underground. Another YouTube video advertised a cheat as an “undetected” cheat for Warzone. It asked for payment in Bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency that can be used by hackers with untraceable wallets.
“When it comes down to it, the dependencies for a ‘genuine’ cheat to work are the same as those needed by most malware tools to successfully execute,” Activision said. “System protections need to be bypassed or disabled, and privileges need to be escalated to allow the program to run correctly and/or establish persistence. While this method is rather simplistic, it is ultimately a social engineering technique that leverages the willingness of its target (players that want to cheat) to voluntarily lower their security protections and ignore warnings about running potentially malicious software.”
This isn’t just Activision piping up so it can discourage people from cheating. A separate report by Cisco Talos also had similar findings to Activision, where it found that players who ignored warnings about buying cheats also ran the risk of getting malware on their computers.
The cheat sellers are motivated by money to create temporary sites where they can sell cheats until they’re discovered and shut down. But those cheat sellers make money not only by selling cheats, but they (or other malware distributors) also hack the accounts of their customers and steal even more money from them.
I sure hope that Activision Blizzard and other game companies stay ahead of the cheaters and the cheat sellers to make it economically too difficult for them to survive. If they don’t, we’re going to have a hard time when we finally make the transition to the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
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