While nothing in the cybersecurity world is 100%, it’s almost impossible at the time of writing this article for the Xbox to get a virus. To date, there have been no successful reported widespread compromises of Xbox consoles. 

I’m Aaron and I’ve worked in cybersecurity for the better part of two decades. I love learning new things about cybersecurity and sharing what I’ve learned to help make the world a safer place. 

In this article, we’ll discuss why it’s so difficult to deploy viruses or malware on the Xbox and why threat actors have likely decided that the outcomes aren’t worth the effort. 

Key Takeaways

  • No version of the Xbox is readily susceptible to viruses. 
  • Xboxes don’t get viruses because of how they’re designed.  
  • Software curation for Xboxes also makes them difficult to compromise.
  • As a result of the difficulty of creating viruses for Xboxes and the lack of reward for doing so makes it unlikely viruses will be developed for the Xbox.

Which Xbox Are We Talking About Here?

All of them! There are only four generations of Xboxes and they all have similar reasons for why they’re so difficult to make and deploy malware to. The four generations of Xboxes are:

  • Xbox
  • Xbox 360
  • Xbox One (One S, One X)
  • Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S

Each iteration of Xbox is effectively a pared down and heavily customized Windows PC. The Xbox operating system, for example, was based on Windows 2000. The Xbox One (and variants), Series X, and Series S are all likely based on the Windows 10 kernel based on app compatibility

The hardware is also the same as low-to-midrange computers of their day. The Xbox processor was a custom Pentium III. The original Xbox could run Linux! The Xbox One ran an eight core x64 AMD CPU, while the current generation of Xboxes runs a custom AMD Zen 2 CPU–not unlike the Steam Deck and other handheld computers. 

Since they’re just Windows computers, they should be susceptible to Windows viruses and malware, right?

Why Xboxes Aren’t Really Susceptible to Viruses

Despite the similarities of the core hardware and operating systems between the Xbox and Windows PCs, Xboxes aren’t susceptible to viruses made for Windows PCs. There are a few reasons for that. 

I’ll admit that some of these explanations are educated guesses. Microsoft holds its intellectual property under heavy secrecy, so there isn’t a lot of verifiable public information in this space. A lot of these explanations are logical extensions of information and tools that are available. 

The Xbox OSes are Heavily Modified

As demonstrated by the original Xbox OS source code leak, even though the OS is based on Windows 2000, it was heavily modified both in operation and execution. The modifications were so extensive that software developed for the Xbox–usually in the form of game disks–was unreadable and incompatible with Windows PCs. 

With Microsoft’s decision to enable a unified Xbox gaming experience across Windows PCs and the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, it’s unclear if that’s made possible by software similarities and compatibility, if the game is emulated on a Windows PC, or if there are still two different versions of each game. 

At the very least, as highlighted by some developers, there are differences in communication architecture depending on where you bought the game, which disables crossplay if purchased outside of the Microsoft Store. 

Xbox Software is Cryptographically Signed

Microsoft has prevented piracy of its game titles and created a closed development environment by requiring cryptographic signatures for its software. In general, that operates by requiring exchange and validation of a code identifying software as validly developed. Without that cryptographic signature, the software cannot be run on an Xbox. 

The Xbox One and later versions of the Xbox have a developer sandbox. That developer sandbox allows execution of code in an isolated environment for testing purposes. Cryptographic signing is provided by using Microsoft’s Xbox developer tools. 

The Xbox’s cryptographic signing is provided by a hardware security chip. We know that because of the use of modchips to circumvent that. Modchips are small circuit boards that are soldered to various integrated circuits and points on the Xbox motherboard. Those circuit boards use sophisticated hardware attacks to spoof or disable cryptographic signing validation, which allows the end-user to run custom code. 

Microsoft Curates Application Stores for the Xboxes 

For legitimately sourced games and other applications, Microsoft monitors and manages application stores for the Xboxes. There are even indie developer channels, like [email protected] and the XNA Game Studio for Xbox 360. Games deployed on those platforms are vetted by Microsoft for quality and safety.

Why Threat Actors Don’t Target the Xbox

Circumventing one of the sets of controls I enumerated above is difficult, but circumventing all three is potentially overwhelming. A threat actor would need to circumvent hardware cryptographic signing, while developing code for the Xbox OS which they can’t easily interact with, using developer tools designed to prevent that kind of nefarious activity. 

Cyberattacks are typically designed to result in financial gain, activism, or both. It’s unclear what financial gain can be gleaned from Xboxes–certainly not as straightforward or lucrative as that found on PCs–or what activist purpose there would be to attack Xboxes. Where something is very difficult and there’s not a lot of incentive to pursue it, it’s not surprising to see that it hasn’t been pursued. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t financial incentive in creating tooling to circumvent Xbox security measures. The existence of modchips highlights that there is. 

FAQs

Let’s talk about some questions that you may have related to Xboxes getting viruses. 

Can the Xbox Get a Virus From Microsoft Edge?

No. Microsoft Edge on the Xbox runs in a sandbox and doesn’t download executables. If it did, it would need to download a virus programmed for the Xbox, which is unlikely to happen. 

Can an Xbox One Get Hacked?

Yes! This is what modchips do. There is allegedly a modchip available for the Xbox One. So if you were to purchase and install one, then you would have hacked your Xbox. Just be aware that hacking, as described here, just means that you’ve circumvented some security protections on the Xbox. It doesn’t mean that the Xbox One can get a virus. 

Conclusion

It’s very unlikely that any model of Xbox can get a virus. This is due to the high complexity of developing and deploying a virus and a low return on work to do so. Both the technical architecture and software delivery pipelines make it very unlikely that a virus will be developed for the Xbox. 

Have you hacked a game console? What was your experience with that? Let me know in the comments below!