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Anti-Cheat Systems What are they, How Do They Work?

Last Updated August 6, 2022

Anti-cheat software stops users of third-party tools—typically in the form of application hooks—from gaining an unfair edge in online games. It presents a challenge to operate securely in a harsh atmosphere that is combative.

What is kernel-level anti-cheat?

Your operating system's kernel, which operates at the most fundamental level, is its core. It is essentially a computer application that has total access to your system. The kernel starts loading as soon as the bootloader does when you switch on your machine. The kernel's code is isolated from application applications and has its own space in memory.

As a result, there won't be any conflicts or problems caused by a browser accessing kernel memory, which would alter how your operating system functions altogether, between the kernel and the installed apps. All other applications on your computer would belong to Ring 3, which is the least privileged program on your computer, if system privileges were divided into four rings, from Ring 0 to Ring 3.

The kernel would occupy Ring 0, while device drivers would occupy Rings 1 and 2, and Ring 3 would house all other applications on your computer. As a result, anything at the kernel level has high privileges and should not go wrong since otherwise, your system would crash. Well, a few game creators have made it mandatory to use anti-cheat drivers at the kernel level.

The kernel-level driver will load on startup and prevent some drivers from loading or running on your computer, in addition to the standard anti-cheat client, which is active while you play the game and scans what is currently running on your computer.

Running other applications on your computer will be impossible when playing a video game because many other programs on your computer rely on these drivers. These anti-cheat technologies frequently target drivers and programs that have access to your hardware, such as fan controllers, temperature monitoring, overclocking tools, and, of course, gaming cheats that also work at the kernel level. Additionally, it will prevent drivers with security flaws from loading cheats in the kernel portion of RAM. A cheat hidden in a section of memory that your standard anti-cheat client can't reach cannot be seen.

How do they work?

Anti-cheat software frequently starts a signature-based scanner to look for potential cheats and weaknesses in the memory and running processes of a machine. An incident report is forwarded to the gaming company's engineers for analysis if the scan turns up any anomalies. If the engineers find a match between the cheat and their database, they will flag the account, and any more cheats will be added for future investigations.

User mode, commonly known as Ring 3, has long been used by anti-cheat software. At this level, the software is unable to directly access the reference memory or underlying hardware; hence, authorization from the system application programming interface (API) is required before any scanning can start. Additionally, while in user mode, apps operate independently and are unable to change data that belongs to another application. As a result, while anti-cheat software operating in user mode can detect signatures, a driver flaw will stifle any potential harm.

Because of this, inventors of cheats have come up with more complex ways to get through Ring 3's anti-cheat system. They have started executing hacks with more rights, specifically at the kernel level or Ring 0. Software at this level is not constrained by Ring 3's limitations and is free to execute any instruction and make any memory location reference.

Cheaters can even intercept system calls that level 3 anti-cheat software uses to retrieve data while operating in kernel mode. As a result, the software fails to identify the account even though it recognizes manipulated results and thinks the data is legitimate. But the fight is far from finished because businesses have stepped up their efforts and developed anti-cheat software that calls for the download of a kernel-mode driver.

Since the scanning is now done "at the source," it is far more difficult to design undetectable cheats. Anti-cheat software running at Ring 0 can check the situation for data integrity that Ring 3 would have been inspecting. Riot Games is the most recent company to use these kernel-mode drivers in their anti-cheat system, joining companies like Epic Games and BattlEye.

According to a recent communication to consumers, they previously "had to use this game from the consumer, thereby giving cheaters a very large, twelve stroke handicap"—a limitation that the security of a software driver will prevent. To give their customers the finest gaming experience possible and keep them coming back for more, game developers like Riot do all in their power to stay ahead of cutting-edge cheating techniques. The kernel-mode driver does, however, make cheating more efficient.

How have gamers responded anti cheats?

The inclusion of such anti-cheat features in their favorite games did not make gamers happy. Many times, they were merely compelled to be installed, and many players likely didn't even consider the possible risk they may be taking.

Some individuals even expressed their frustration with disputed DRM applications like starforce or securom, as well as their concern that kernel-level anti-cheat technology would experience the same fate. Particularly, the kernel-level approach has been chosen by the creators of three hugely successful games, two of which were created and released by Riot Games.

Security

While these companies may have the greatest of intentions when it concerns safeguarding the integrity of their games, the increased efficacy, unfortunately, comes at the expense of player security and privacy. Problems with anti-cheat software can cause system-wide instability and provide hackers with a potential new entry point into players' computers.

Any weaknesses in the driver logic of anti-cheat tools at the host machine may result in crashes like the "screen of death," while major defects in the code may enable a cross site scripting exploit. In fact, a successful kernel attack could grant hackers complete access to machines, allowing them to penetrate the player's network and the router via either the Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection, exposing all connected devices on the network to unauthorized access and misuse.

A gaming station connected to the same network as a working asset makes the potential reach of the attack even more disastrous. This is a huge problem under normal circumstances, but given that the majority of the world is currently in lockdown and many employees are working from home, it is even more problematic. The fact that existing kernel-level anti-cheat routines likely already have certain vulnerabilities should be stressed although these kinds of dire eventualities might appear improbable or far off.

Given all of this, businesses have a responsibility to their customers to preserve data security procedures if they're going to demand such low-level access to equipment. Gaming organizations can give customers more peace of mind about their practices through third-party assurances like cybersecurity or privacy assessments, but depending on where the companies themselves are located, they may already have a legal duty to comply with that state or country's privacy requirements. Penetration testing and social engineering testing are suggested options since these third-party security assessments typically check for data protection measures in three key areas:

  • Governance/program definition for administrative security, training of employees, and vendor oversight
  • Technical safeguards for computer systems, include access controls and encryption
  • Physical infrastructure, environmental protection, catastrophe recovery, and business continuity.

These procedures, along with others, are essential to guaranteeing data protection for customers. Customers need to have faith that businesses can not only protect their data but also respond quickly to patch vulnerabilities if things are compromised, including anti-cheat drivers.

As a result, administrative measures like data classification become even more crucial. Even if cheating is still a problem that needs to be addressed, data breaches pose an even greater threat to the gaming industry. As a result, businesses must find a balance between avoiding cheating and maintaining the security and privacy of their customers.

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