Gamers help find suspected Half-Life code thieves

Arrests have been made in several countries stemming from the October 2003 theft of computer source code for a Half-Life 2, a much-anticipated sequel to the popular computer game Half-Life.

Tips from an online gaming community led to the arrests after an eight-month investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the theft, according to a statement released on Thursday by Valve, which makes the game.

"Within a few days of the announcement of the break-in, the online gaming community had tracked down those involved," said Gabe Newell, Valve's chief executive officer, in a statement. "It was extraordinary to watch how quickly and how cleverly gamers were able to unravel what are traditionally unsolvable problems for law enforcement related to this kind of cyber-crime."

Valve did not reveal details about the arrests and referred questions to the FBI's Northwest Cyber Crime Task Force. The FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Half-Life is a popular computer game in which players take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist at the fictional Black Mesa Federal Research Facility. After an experiment goes awry, a doorway into another dimension is accidentally opened and Freeman is called on to rescue the facility from a horde of unearthly beasts.

Originally released in November 1998, Half-Life won awards from computer game aficionados and the gaming press and spawned a popular online version, Counter-Strike, that allows multiple players to compete against each other on the Internet.

The sequel to the original game, Half-Life 2, was scheduled for release in September 2003, but then delayed under mysterious circumstances. The company has still not set a date for the release of the game.

While few details of the theft have emerged since October, Newell said at the time that the source code was stolen in September by hackers who systematically compromised the company's computer systems by exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client on Newell's computer, installing key stroke capture software to acquire passwords and other security credentials, then stealing a copy of the Half-Life 2 source code.

Unconfirmed reports last month suggested that a German man recently charged with creating a ubiquitous Trojan horse program named "Agobot" or "Phatbot" may have been behind the Valve code theft as well.

Horst Haug, a spokesman for the State Bureau of Investigation in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, declined to comment on a link between the two cases Friday.

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Paul Roberts

IDG News Service
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