Risks of downloading pirated, or ‘cracked,’ software and games

3 mins
Download symbol with a skull wearing an eye patch.

Whether it’s the latest game release or a new app you’d rather not pay for, pirating software is never the answer. While it’s tempting to consider, using illegal software often causes more problems than it solves.

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What is digital rights management (DRM)?

A long-standing anti-piracy measure is the inclusion of copy protection in video games. In the late 80s and early 90s, this often required users to enter in a cipher code or text from a game’s manual or box in order to play the game. 

Space Quest 1 copy protection codes.
Copy protection codes from Sierra Online’s Space Quest 1

These days, the most common form of copy protection is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which is a type of technology that authenticates games or software so that they can only run under specific conditions. This is done via several methods, including using product keys for activation, limited allowed activations (i.e., a program can only be installed a certain number of times), and always-on DRM—which requires that an internet connection is maintained at all times in order to authenticate the program. DRM can also extend to other forms of media including ebooks, music, and movies.

Disabling DRM is called cracking, and cracked software is dangerous for a number of reasons:

1. It’s illegal

The biggest thing to keep in mind before you consider downloading pirated or cracked software is that it’s illegal. The last thing you want is to trade off easy access to a game or program with jail time. Anti-piracy laws vary across regions and can range from fines to lengthy prison sentences.

2. You won’t get updates or support

Keeping your devices updated to the latest versions and patches is integral for protecting your devices from emerging threats. Installing cracked or pirated software will cause you to lose access to these updates. That’s because most pirated programs need to be patched in order to work, but that patching process will prevent any software updates from taking place. While this may not be apparent in the short term, the program or game will become severely outdated over time.

3. You might get ads or malware

Unverified software can be riddled with adware, often in the form of annoying pop-up banners or videos. At worst, adware is extremely annoying. Malware is much worse.

From mid-2018 to mid-2021, a cryptojacking malware known as Crackonosh infected over 200,000 devices internationally. Primarily targeting gamers, the malware was injected into pirated software that, once installed on a computer, hijacks it to mine cryptocurrency. Crackonosh also disabled Windows updates and uninstalled any antivirus or security software.

In July 2021, a malware known as MosaicLoader was discovered to have affected devices worldwide. Specifically targeting users who search for and download pirated games and software, MosaicLoader has the ability to steal passwords, mine cryptocurrency, and inject trojan malware.

4. You might get yourself banned 

Even if you are lucky enough to avoid infecting your device with malware, you’re not likely to get far without encountering one of the most common contemporary anti-piracy measures—an account ban.

In 2016, Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs began issuing lifetime bans to players who violated the game’s terms of service—specifically with regards to modifying or installing unofficial software.

In 2018, Nintendo began permanently banning Switch users from online play if it detected that a game had been installed illegally. Depending on the situation, users could also be permanently banned from the Nintendo Network.

At the end of the day, what’s the point of pirating something if you can’t even use it?

Read more: Why you should never jailbreak your devices

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