The Hacker Behind the Half-life 2 Leak Shares his Story

Axel Gembe, the German hacker who managed to steal Half-life 2, tells us how it all went down. Gembe starts off with his early motivations to become a hacker. He managed to reverse engineer a warcraft 3 key which contained malware and he tracked it back to it’s creator.

From there Gembe began turning his attention to cracking game CD keys and other malicious acts. However, he soon began to turn his eye towards Valve.

Gambe wasn’t sure where his attempts to hack into Valve’s network would lead. At first Gembe “wasn’t really expecting to get anywhere.” However, “the first entry was easy. In fact, it happened by accident.”

I was scanning Valve’s network to check for accessible web servers where I thought information about the game might have been held. Valve’s network was reasonably secure from the outside, but the weakness was that their name server allowed anonymous AXFRs, which gave me quite a bit of information.

He then continued to browse around the network all while remaining hidden to Valve employees. Once he found the files he had been looking for, he hit the download button and he was all set.

All I cared about at that point was not being thrown out, but I had access to an almost unlimited amount of proxy servers, so I wasn’t worried. My first job was to find a host where I could set up some sort of hideout. Getting the source code was easy, thanks to the network performance of the Perforce client, but the SourceSafe client for the game data was horrible.

Then he started to brag to another hacker about his actions. In fact, he actually sent it to that other individual.

I didn’t think it through. 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. The cat was out of the bag. You cannot stop the internet.

After this whole ordeal Valve was in a huge mess and turned to the community. However, after a few months of searching the hunt was coming to an end. That was until Gembe contacted Valve himself and asked for a Job.

I was very na├»ve back then. It was and still is my dream to work for a game development company, so I just asked. I hoped that they could forgive what I had done, mostly because it wasn’t intentional.

Valve then decided to setup a phone interview. What Gembe didn’t know was that Valve contacted the FBI and they wanted him to spill the beans in a recorded conversation. After describing how he hacked the network in great detail over the phone, Valve tried to setup a sting operation with the FBI in order to bring him to the U.S. Valve also contacted German authorities and alerted them of their plans.

However, German police managed to seize Gembe at his house and take him into custody. After Gembe confessed his crime, the authorities made him aware of the FBI’s plan. If he would have gotten on that plane and went to the U.S. for that supposed job things would have been very different for him.

The trial took place after Half-life 2 managed to sell around 8million copies. In addition, Gembe managed to reform himself before the trial. He got a job and stopped his malicious attempts at hacking. As a result the court took this into account and gave him a light punishment.

After all of these events Axel Gembe apologized and he still views Valve and his favorite developer.

I was naive and did things that I should never have done. 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. 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 (Valve) are my favorite developer, and I will always buy your games.

You can check out the full story, which goes into even more detail at the source.