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Is it possible for a resourceful country to understand how enemy computers work, assuming they have easy access only to enemies game consoles?

The situations is as following:

  • CPU/GPU with unknown instruction set that is quite different from your own something like Intel i960 compared to x86. The rest of hardware are off the shelf components.
  • Their programs are written in unknown programming language
  • The operating system is different
  • No reference manuals are available like books, source code and so on.
  • Game consoles and games are easily obtainable in whatever quantity is needed.
  • Technology level is similar to Earth in the 90's, both countries are on roughly equal footing.

Servers and workstations are under export controls, very few of them could be obtained from clandestine operations. They use version of the OS used in the console consoles, like OrbisOS, FreeBSD derivative used on Playstation 4.

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    $\begingroup$ How well do you want them to understand the computers, and how long do they have? Also, keep in mind that a game console wouldn't be that useful for figuring out the OS of all enemy computers because ones used for productivity have a completely different operating system. $\endgroup$ – Jarred Allen Apr 7 '17 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ Also, why? There are theoretical reasons why all modern computer architectures look similarish today. So, even without knowing anything about who's making the computers you have on your alternate Earth, I can probably already tell you how they'd have to work. $\endgroup$ – imallett Apr 7 '17 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ @JarredAllen Maybe, maybe not. It is actually too variable to be predictable. Microsoft uses parts of same code for PC Windows and XBOX. Similarly Sony did not write the OS scratch, it is based on open source operating systems used in "productivity". And since we are talking of parts of code, some BSD licensed libraries are used by lots of operating systems. And all current OS actually follow same proven design principles. So you could potentially learn lots, how much and how useful it will be, that is the question. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 7 '17 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ What is what you wanna know about them? By inspecting a gaming console you can see it's electrichal signals going around and several circuits to store information and several other to perform mathematical operations on them. But exactly, what are you planning to do with that information? $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Apr 7 '17 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ Given the question I think it's important to specify whether we're talking 1990 or 1999, because when it comes to the development of computers that's a HUGE timespan. $\endgroup$ – Erik Apr 7 '17 at 9:52
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It's possible for a one guy in a basement, so it wouldn't be a problem for a whole country.
First you split your problems: hardware and software.
Then you separate focus points. For hardware you go the "if-then" path. Or just skip to software where you get all the info from the BIOS.
You then figure out the OS, taking parts of it apart and see what it does. Then you have a backdoor for programs. Because you know the OS you know what commands are given and how they are handled.

But, while your whole country does that, there is one guy, let's call him Steve, that just goes into a factory, copies all the data and sends them to a third country, let's call them China.
And that, my friend, is how espionage works.

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  • $\begingroup$ One guy stealing it, I love that $\endgroup$ – famaz Apr 7 '17 at 19:25
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That depends entirely on the type of console in question and how good of an understanding you're looking for. You could examine a modern XBox and get a pretty good idea of how Windows desktop computers work, because an XBox basically is a specialized Windows desktop computer with a fixed hardware configuration. But an Atari 2600 console isn't going to tell you much more than the deepest internals of how computers of that era worked, because it had very little in common with them.

As already noted, one guy operating alone, given enough time, would be able to extract all available information from the hardware and software. There's just a question of how similar the console in question is to the civilization's other computers, which will determine how much useful information is available in the first place.

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  • $\begingroup$ They use different instruction set like ARM instead of x86 and program using different language like Common Lisp instead of Java. The country never heard nor found documentation about neither ARM nor Ocaml. $\endgroup$ – famaz Apr 7 '17 at 19:31
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No

To make an analogous question: can I — if I get hold of a radio-controlled toy car — learn how mom's car works? Can I learn to service it; find out how the internal combustion engine, the generator, the water pump and the drive-train operates; and then — eventually — be able to drive it away better than mom, just by playing with my toy car?

No, I can not.

Sure, I can get the general idea: the thing has wheels... a couple of them spin and propel the car forward and backward... and when the front wheels swivel, that makes the car turn. I can also see how mom does it when she operates the car and maybe mimic what she is doing. But — as any driving student knows — this does not even get me off the driveway when I try it for the first time by myself, especially if it is a stick shift.

The same principle goes for computers: you are comparing a toy to a fully fledged system. Not only do they look completely different under the hood, but unless you get educated, you can never figure out the internals of it by yourself. And you most certainly will not be able to outsmart them and gain control over the system.

So... to answer your question: can you figure out how the enemy's computers work by getting hold of their game consoles?

Reality Check's Magic 8-Ball says: Very Doubtful

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    $\begingroup$ Your analogy does not hold - a game-console under the hood is an ordinary computer in every sense of the word, just one that's used primarily to play games. It's not a toy. If you reverse engineer an XBOX, you're going to have very little trouble figuring out how an ordinary computer works. Most of the components work the same way. $\endgroup$ – Erik Apr 7 '17 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ A single-user, single-purpose computer with an operating system made to play games on. It is nothing like a multi-user networked system with an operating system made to play war on. And especially not when you have everything from terminals to mainframes... from micro-controllers to clustered computing banks. So: no, just no. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Apr 7 '17 at 9:44

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