In 2004, a young German resident managed to hack into Valve Corporation’s network and steal Half-Life 2 ahead of the game’s actual release, causing $250 million in damages and starting a man-hunt on an international scale; and the hacker behind the theft has spoken of the frightening time.
“While I have a €2,000 Steam account nowadays, at the time I couldn’t afford to buy games,” explained Axel Gembe.
“So I coded my own malware to steal CD keys in order to unlock the titles I wanted to play. It grew quickly to one of the most prominent malwares at the time, mostly because I started writing exploits for some unpatched vulnerabilities in Windows.”
Gembe wasn’t in it for the profits, but to access games without having to purchase them, and being a huge fan of Half-Life and waiting in anticipation for Half-Life 2, this sent Gembe to search for any details he could on Valve’s network.
Gembe managed to hack into the network, and used his malware to create hashed passwords to unlock any server.
“Once I had done that… Well, basically I had the keys to the kingdom,” said Gembe.
That’s when Gembe stumbled across the source code for Half-Life 2, and downloaded it.
“The game didn’t run on my computer. I made some code changes to get it to run in a basic form without shaders or anything, but it wasn’t fun. Also, I only had the main development trunk of the game. They had so many development branches that I couldn’t even begin to check them all out.”
While Gembe downloaded the source code, he is adamant that he wasn’t the one who uploaded it to the internet.
“I didn’t think it through,” he says. “There was, of course, an element of bragging going on. But the person I shared the source with assured me he would keep it to himself. He didn’t.”
Gembe then e-mailed Gabe Newell, confessing to downloading the source code, but explaining it was never his intention to leak the game. Gembe also asked Newell for a job.
Newell took this as an opportunity to track down Gembe and led him on to believe he had a shot.
The German authorities were informed and Gembe awoke to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun in his German home.
The German authorities interrogated him and after a court hearing, Gembe was found innocent of leaking the game, but guilty of hacking Valve’s servers, and was sentenced to two years’ probation.
Gembe, 28 at the time of the interview, was regretful of his actions.
“I was naïve and did things that I should never have done,” he said. “There were so many better uses of my time. I regret having caused Valve Software trouble and financial loss. I also regret having caused some universities financial harm by using them as speed tests for my malware.
“Basically I regret all the illegal things I did at that time… And I regret not doing anything worthwhile with my life before I got busted.”
Gembe also explained what he would say if he had the opportunity to speak to Gabe Newell.
“I would say this: I am so very sorry for what I did to you. I never intended to cause you harm. If I could undo it, I would. It still makes me sad thinking about it. I would have loved to just stay and watch you do your thing, but in the end I screwed it up.
“You are my favourite developer, and I will always buy your games.”