beIN Media says watermarking not enough to protect live sport

The Qatari beIN Media Group, whose sports channel fell victim to a sophisticated piracy operation allegedly backed by Saudi Arabia, claims that the methods used have been adopted by other groups on a more global basis and threaten to erode the value of premium sports rights.

The group has been lobbying broadcasters and content owners to raise their game against piracy and adopt the latest technologies including forensic watermarking to present a more united front. A key point is that while watermarking is an essential tool for combatting live online sports piracy, it can only be effective in combination with other measures. This point has been made by developers of watermarking technology from the outset, but now a growing number of service providers have direct experience of its operation and none more so than beIN media.

The channel became embroiled in the intense diplomatic battle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia after the latter accused the former of stoking terrorism in the region. Saudi Arabia then acted in concert with eight allies including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, expelling Qatari citizens, closing Qatar’s only land border, shutting down its airspace and halting all trade.

The case has been full of intrigue rooted in historical fault lines in the region with the dispute waged through social media amid allegations from both sides of cyberwarfare. beIN Media became sucked in as a result of holding exclusive rights to the FIFA 2018 World Cup across the Middle East at a time when as part of the dispute Saudi Arabia, Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE had banned the sale of beIN Sports receivers, smartcards and subscriptions in their markets. This created fertile ground for piracy which was successfully cultivated by the now infamous BeoutQ.

BeIN Media lost 900,000 customers in Saudi Arabia alone through the dispute, around 40% of its customer base, and many of those turned to BeoutQ’s service, whose sophistication helped point the finger at direct Saudi connivance or at the very least tolerance. FIFA itself was drawn in by issuing threats to act against BeoutQ and reaffirming that beIN Media held exclusive rights to matches in the region, although without explicitly implicating Saudi Arabia.

Since then the beIN Media piracy case has come to center stage of the wider diplomatic battle. Saudi Arabia now has problems on other fronts, notably the possible denouement of its war in the Yemen against Iranian backed rebels and widespread condemnation following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. The timing of Saudi Arabia’s discomfiture over the Khashoggi case may indirectly assist Qatar’s fightback against its ostracization by that Arab group of nine. This was escalated on October 1st 2018 when Qatar started proceedings against Saudi Arabia at the World Trade Organization (WTO), accusing it of intellectual property rights violations citing failure to take to take effective action against the piracy of beIN content in the kingdom.

Such failure, beIN Media has argued, has implications for the whole content world, because it has helped harden piracy against countermeasures as other organized groups have copied BeoutQ’s methods. This was likely to happen anyway and the diplomatic dispute may have just brought it forward, but in any case, beIN Media is right to issue the call to arms. The group cited forensic watermarking as a technology that helps mitigate the impact of piracy generally, if not in this case, but insisted that it should be combined with measures for unique identification of streams, such as CDN edge tokens and unique identifiers in the URL.

Token authentication is used by CDNs to verify that requests for content are generated by a trusted site holding tokens with the correct encoded values. This can be used to enforce geoblocking on a regional level as well as blocking infringing streams at a user level. Latency can also be an impediment for watermarking of live content given that consumers are increasingly deterred by a large delay behind the live broadcast. Watermarking can add around five seconds to the latency budget, nudging some service providers towards those other methods of stream identification.

At the same time the proven success of watermarking and publicity given to it ever since MovieLabs mandated it for protection of ultra HD content in April 2014, has led pirates to develop counter measures. These include various geometric methods that attempt to obscure the marks, including rearrangement of pixels within frames by substituting one region for another that looks very similar. Related to this are visual manipulation attacks where the outputs from two different OTT devices or set tops are mixed to create a composite image, which can confound the watermarking detection process because individual marks are fragmented. Such attacks have grown in frequency according to UK vendor of watermarking technology Friend MTS, which says it has taken steps to make its own anti-piracy platform AsID immune to such countermeasures. Actually most watermarking these days claims to be immune to this attack.

Another approach available to more sophisticated pirates with the resources is to generate illicit streams by rotating between the output of multiple devices or set tops, which makes it hard to pinpoint the source. Even if a few are shut down others are still available and the pirate may keep some in reserve to start up as an event progresses. All these counter-measures can themselves be combatted, but responses in turn have to become more sophisticated and powerful. They also require good will and coordination between multiple parties and when that breaks down piracy flourishes. beIN Media has discovered that whether or not the Saudi government gave BeoutQ even tacit assistance.