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Your Take: Is Cleverness a Crime?

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Game KingHere’s an interesting question – is taking advantage of an exploitable bug in something inherently illegal? By luck and lots of playing, John Kane discovered a bug in the Game King video poker gaming system (this is true of all systems, not a single unit, in which certain settings were turned on) that would give him a significant advantage. I won’t go into the exact exploit, it gets pretty detailed, but Kane was charged with a violation of federal anti-hacking law even though he didn’t tamper with anything. He simply looked for a setting (or asked that it be turned on) and used his workaround. He also worked with others to visit several casinos over and over to use the exploit to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The exact charge wasn’t that they hacked the unit itself, since they didn’t, but that they exceeded “their otherwise legitimate access ‘to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.'” In other words, they discovered this workaround, used it, and made lots of money. They found a bug (the thing the accesser is not entitled to obtain or alter).

Personally, I don’t think what they did should be a crime. The manufacturers of the Game King system didn’t test their systems enough and now turning this into a legal case just brings more exposure to their oversight. This is big news only because of all the recent news about Aaron’s Law (named after Aaron Swartz), and the fight over internet regulation laws.

Did they do something ethical? No, certainly not. But you could argue that gambling is hardly ethical either (and being unethical in an unethical place… well, that’s not two wrongs make a right either!). That said, gamblers are always trying to beat the house when they play any rigged game (all casino games favor the house), these gamblers simply found a way to work things in their favor. I applaud them!

What do you think? Did they commit a crime?

(Credit: midom)

{ 21 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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21 Responses to “Your Take: Is Cleverness a Crime?”

  1. Seth says:

    That one really is a tricky question. After all… isn’t hacking all about finding a weakness and exploiting it?

    To that extent, is it “hacking” to use the recommended plays in blackjack when playing with a live dealer? Following those guides also significantly increases your odds.

    But, I agree with you on this. If they were not making any changes to the system, they merely found a bug in the software that increased their chances of winning.

  2. That’s a tough one. In terms of ethics, I would have to say that it’s not ethical. If I discovered it, then I would report it as my conscience would eat at me otherwise. In terms of legality, you bring up a great point. I can see both sides of the issue but not certain if it should be inherently illegal.

  3. I’m with you Jim. Casinos have long labeled “cheating” any practice that may alter the house’s overwhelmingly stacked odds, like blackjack card counting. To me this is comparable to Target calling foul because customers research prices of items and go to Wal Mart if the item they want to buy is cheaper there. Businesses prefer their customers ignorant–makes them easier to fleece!

  4. Nope. Not cheating, and not unethical–especially not compared to what the slots system was trying to do! THAT’S way more unethical to me.

  5. daemondust says:

    If this had been against a person, a casino employee, it would be obvious. Fire, or retrain, the employee for not doing his job properly. The solution here is no different. Fire (turn off, return to manufacturer as defective, etc), or retrain (patch), the gaming machine.

  6. Stephen says:

    I do not think this should be illegal at all. If anything, the casino should just find a new manufacturer for their machines.

    I actually test financial software for my job, and as quality assurance, if we release software that has a bug, that comes back to me. The client won’t sue the other bank they traded with who made more money because of the bug, they’ll report it to us, and we take blame.

  7. NateUVM says:

    I dunno….

    If there were a bug at the bank, and the vault door was left open, would it be legal to just walk in there (as walking is legal) and just grab whatever you could carry?

    I know the analogy isn’t perfect, and you can certainly argue the differences, but that is kind-of how I’m viewing this. I mean, the “bug” was clearly an error that prevented the gambling machine from working properly, and Mr. King KNEW it wasn’t working as designed, and he took advantage.

    Also, this is different from trying to game the house in other gambling situations because you are still playing by the rules, as intended.

    • Texas Wahoo says:

      Except you are not allowed to count cards. So if you count cards, you are not playing by the rules.

      The rules are designed to give the house a slight advantage. If you are doing something that gives you an advantage, you are not playing by the rules.

  8. bloodbath says:

    It’s interesting that the ‘law’ did not see the loophole (that mortgage bankers, real estate agents and home value estimators) used to scam millions Americans out of their money and ultimately their homes. That loophole destroyed neighborhood and the national ecomomy. Those gamblers did nothing wrong – if the mortgage shysters were not punished then the gamblers should not be either – they did far less harm that what a casino suffered. I remember one casino questioning me because I won 3 slot jackpots in a row – I had figured out the best time period and machine payout schedules and I used it to my advantage. Should I be arrested for that too?

  9. I agree with several people above. If the person playing didn’t break into the machine or change the software then it shouldn’t be illegal.

  10. freeby50 says:

    Purposefully and methodically abusing a flaw in a system for your own financial gain is something I think should be considered fraud and illegal.

    What if pushing the ‘1’ button 3 times on an ATM made a $100 bill pop out? SHould it be OK for someone to make themselves a millionaire at the banks expense by pushing the 1 button all day?

    Or look at it this way: What if the flaw was something that made players lose money. Should the casino be liable to repay players for a flaw in the machine that cost customers money? I’d say so. What if the casino systematically exploited a flaw to the cost of the players? Id’ think that should be illegal. This kind of thing is a two way street and if its fair one direction its fair the other direction.

  11. NateUVM says:

    @ Texas Wahoo

    1) I wasn’t talking about counting cards.

    2) WAY off topic here – Counting cards isn’t against the rules.

    Casino’s don’t like it when you do it (which is why they implement measures like multi-deck shoes, etc…). They are certainly within their rights to make you leave, bar you from returning, and sharing that info with other casinos, in effect black-listing you. But it isn’t against the rules. Just a question of whether you want to risk being able to return or not.

    • Jim says:

      Yeah and since they are private property, they can ask you to leave for any reason.

      It’s not against the law but it’s against their rules.

    • Texas Wahoo says:

      It may not be against the “rules.” But it is certainly isn’t “playing by the rules, as intended.” If you’re counting cards, you are exploiting an error in the casino’s system of dealing that prevents the game from being completely random (e.g., they are only using a limited number of decks of cards and not reshuffling in between every hand). Everyone knows that the casino is intending for the cards to be random, and you are exploiting an error in their system that prevents them from making them completely random.

      But that only applies to counting cards. If you are just talking about trying to play the odds, you are right.

  12. Jennifer. says:

    If finding a bug is illegal then they will have charge every game player that ever played a game. Finding bugs is an industry.

  13. admiral58 says:

    When money is on the line, it’s certainly looked at as a crime.

  14. freeby50 says:

    Jennifer, there is a difference between ‘finding’ a bug and ‘exploiting’ a bug. And we’re talking about a casino game here, not Halo 3.

  15. Rev. Scott U says:

    While I’m no arbiter of morality:

    IF Kane & cronies weren’t seeking to “worm their way” into the gambling software when the “loophole” was stumbled upon”, making use of that technically allowed advantage is “no more unethical” than discovering that a store’s accidentally advertising a product for 90% off & rushing to buy it online before the price is corrected. The store WILL honor that price just as much as if it had mislabeled it in the store–won’t it?

    It’s “no more unethical” than “back in the old days”, if you found a malfunctioning vending machine that hacked up candy bars for just a dime instead of 50 cents, you gleefully snagged all you could–or at least a couple..

    Though it would be MORE ethical and certainly APPRECIATED that anyone politely notify the party of their mistake instead of take advantage–

    it would also be more ethical and certainly appreciated that banks & businesses not bilk & fine-print-bleed their customers’ wallets to death. But THAT SCAMSMANSHIP is perpetuated every day a million times in a million ways–LEGALLY.

    Let the buyers–
    and the sellers–
    and the gambling joints–

    SCAMSMANSHIP cuts both ways.

  16. I do not think that it is cheating. It seems that the casinos and their like are more than willing to get your business (and relieve you of your money) if all of the cards are stacked in their favor. If someone comes along and finds a way to “game” the gaming system, they get all upset about it. I say he did nothing wrong.

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