The big gaming console makers (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) have different and sometimes confusing ways of preventing users from breaking the rules when it comes to sharing games. In most cases, this involves requiring the online account of users to be tied to the physical console on which they play. This is the policy of Sony, the maker of the PlayStation 4 (PS4). However, some PS4 owners have lately been encountering issues with their consoles being deactivated (or separated) from their PlayStation Network accounts without their knowledge. The users are are unable to reactivate their console, essentially removing access to some of the games they have purchased.
One Family’s Story
We spoke to two PlayStation users: a husband and wife who prefer to remain anonymous. Our source logged in to his account to play Mortal Kombat X in April and got disconnected from the network. After changing his passwords and contacting customer support over text chat, he discovered that his PS4 console had been deactivated without his knowledge. There was no way to reactivate the family’s PS4 console as the primary device, because another console had already been activated for that account.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
- When you own a PlayStation 4 you can activate it as your primary device. This means you can download all your purchases from the PlayStation network. Other users who log into their accounts on your primary device can also play those games.
- The PS4 can generally be activated and deactivated only through a menu on that device.
You can have only one activated device per account. This rule exists to keep people from activating multiple devices and sharing games with other households. Sony wants people to buy their own copies of the games. This is a great rule for families who live together. Parents can have their own account tied to their credit cards. That way they can handle purchasing games and control who has access to what. Kids can have sub-accounts that have less permissions than full accounts, but they can still play the games on their own accounts and get their own trophies.
This isn’t how it worked out for this family.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” our source said. She and her husband have accounts for their daughters on their deactivated PS4. The daughters can no longer play games on those accounts, because they technically belong to their parents and are no longer available to them. “We found a way for the kids to play Minecraft. They’ve got access to that, just not the worlds they already built. [They can play with] none of their friends. All their friend lists are on their accounts.”
Sony’s online activation and deactivation policy says that users can only deactivate a PlayStation Network account from the console itself. It is possible to do this online, but Sony only allows customers to do this once every six months. Our sources never deactivated their console, but when they logged into Sony website they discovered that it had been deactivated and reactivated through the online system.
They have made several calls to customer support. When I spoke to them in late May, it had been over a month since they initially encountered their problem. As it stands, there seems to be no way to reactivate their PS4 console until October, when the six months are up.
“It’s one of the main reasons we bought the PS4, because our girls are gamers like their dad,” she said. She added that they don’t play games all the time. Like many families, they use screen time as a reward for doing chores. Losing access to games on the sub-accounts took away one of their incentives. “They think it kind of sucks,” she said. “They have to earn their time, so to them it’s important.”
Hackers or an Error?
On March 26, the PS4 hardware received its biggest operating system update since launch. The 2.51 update added and streamlined a lot of features, including some that are useful to families. But some PS4 owners are wondering if the update could have introduced an error that automatically deactivated their consoles.
This family is certain their account was hacked. But this raises the question: Why can’t Sony do anything about it?
“I’ve had friends who have had their account compromised while playing other online games such as World of Warcraft and Rift, and were able to get everything back under control that day,” the source said. “You would think somebody as big as Sony would be able to provide the same customer service that a smaller company is able to accomplish, in way less time.”
Sony’s policy dictates that if a user has a security breach, the company bears no responsibility. Likewise, they’re not concerned if users get their accounts frozen because of game-sharing. But Sony can tell how many times an account has been activated and deactivated on devices. Shouldn’t they be able to assess whether users are game-sharing or whether they’ve had their accounts effectively hijacked?
“If I was the owner of a business, I wouldn’t like that either. You want people to buy the games,” she said. “They’re protecting their games, I get that—but right now to me it feels like they’re protecting the people that are hacking.”
There’s another possibility: the 2.51 update could have introduced a security breach that hackers took advantage of.
A Dead-End in Sony Customer Support
Our source called customer support several times. She had trouble even getting representatives to understand that she couldn’t log onto the activated PS4 and fix the problem herself. Since a different PS4 console had been activated for her account, she would need to find that device first and deactivate it. Of course, no one knew where that device was. “I think their system is a little flawed, because they should’ve been able to reactivate ours as primary. It’s our account. That should’ve been something they should be able to review and fix.”
Other users who have experienced the same problems have called support with little success. They describe representatives hanging up on them or reading from pre-recorded scripts. Obviously this isn’t a problem with the support representatives themselves. Sony’s policies seem to be putting everyone in a difficult position.
For this family, the situation has an added sting. “All my friends consider me to be a ‘Sony fanboy,’ which is partially true,” he told me. “I have been a huge fan of PlayStation since PS1. I have all four PlayStation systems, as well as a PSP and Vita. I have always been supportive for them and praise them. Until a month ago. Now I feel let down by the company I love.”
His wife was laughing a little when she told me the same thing, but added, “He’s one of the customers that you should like and want to keep. I think it really almost broke his heart that they’re treating him this way.”
“A lot of people buy these PS4s for their kids and they don’t play them like he does, or I do. Even I wouldn’t have known exactly what was going on. I wouldn’t have known to get on the computer and change the password right away. If they [other parents] had called [Sony] and not known what they were talking about—if I got the run-around, could you imagine someone that doesn’t know what’s going on?”
This isn’t the first time Sony has gotten into hot water for the way they treat customers. A BBC investigation took a look at Sony’s refund policies in Europe after users failed to get refunds on purchases made on stolen accounts. In January 2015, Sony began compensating users whose accounts were compromised in a 2011 hack that affected over 70 million accounts. This came after the settlement of a $15 million lawsuit.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
If the deactivations are caused by an error, we’ll just have to wait for Sony to fix it. However, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe from hacking.
Give Your Device a Name
One of the reasons our source is certain he was hacked is because he named his PS4 console. That’s how he can tell that his account has been reactivated on a PS4 that isn’t his. You can name your PS4 by logging into your account online, selecting “Devices,” and giving each activated device a unique name.
Use a Unique Password
Hackers may not be able to access your credit-card information from your account, but they can still use it to purchase games, movies, and other downloadable items for PlayStation devices. Using a password that is unique to your PlayStation account means it’s less likely to be found out. Password managers like 1Password help keep your passwords secure.
Using two-factor authentication on the email address you use for your PlayStation account is another good step to stay secure. And hey, you should be doing this already! I know it’s a pain, but better safe than sorry.
No matter how this happened, the fact is that Sony has a bad track record for keeping customers safe and for dishing out compensation when it fails. Account holders should be responsible and keep their passwords safe, but Sony could take steps as well—if it wants to keep its customer base.
Introducing two-factor authentification for activating and deactivating consoles would be a start. Needing to confirm the reactivation through Sony’s website or an app could potentially give users a chance to react before their account is compromised.
Sony could automatically email account holders when their device is deactivated and email again with an alert when another device is activated as primary for that account. They could provide the IP address for all activations. This would let users know definitively where their account’s primary device was. Sony accounts generally include the home address of the users. Users should be notified when their account is accessed from an unfamiliar location (something Facebook already does for security).
If Sony can see that a customer isn’t taking advantage of deactivations to share games, there’s no reason they shouldn’t protect the customer’s access to those games.
“We have the $50 PlayStation Plus. We have kids so obviously we own a bunch of controllers. We own the system. We buy the games,” our source told me. “We put a lot of money into it, and the whole reason we have it is so the girls can have something to do too, because they really like it too.”
Like many users, they’re waiting to see what happens in six months.
“If we don’t get it back in October, I think we’ll have a little more to say about it.”
We’ve asked Sony to comment on this story, and we will update it if they reply.