Covid-19 has had a noticeable effect on the video viewing habits of consumers globally. We recently explored the phenomenon in a Rethink TV forecast, but the increase has also been seen on the illegitimate side of things. Irdeto has seen a spike in piracy, and wanted to update Faultline on the scope and capabilities of these pirate services.
Mark Mulready, VP of Cybersecurity Services, came to Irdeto after spending nine years at Foxtel, the Australian telco, and 16 years in the New South Wales Police Department. Making the jump from detective work into fraud and operational security was driven by a desire to put law qualifications to more use, and Mulready has now been at Irdeto for 10 years.
Foxtel was an Irdeto customer, using the firm’s security offerings to tackle smart card fraud and handle CAS in Australia. Irdeto has expanded past its starting point in the latter, and now pitches itself as a digital platform security company – covering all sorts of entertainment, as well as the IoT and transport sector.
In the video realm, this focuses on CAS, security key issuing and handling, DRM, watermarking, and other managed services for protecting content and business models. An ongoing focus is the issue of converting pirate consumers to legitimate customers, which is something that is getting trickier.
Mulready explained that the explosion of SVoD offerings is going to introduce an element of billing fatigue among consumers, as they tire of having to pay multiple different service fees on top of a likely pay TV service that is tacked onto a triple play offering. To this end, the legit services are now competing against pirate offerings that have a great user experience.
Gone are the days of grainy video, said Mulready, and the commercial pirate offerings can provide hardware that grants access to premium channels and VoD, in high definition. This is a plug-and-play experience, and one that when weighed against the cost of five to six different subscriptions, is quite convincing. It’s understandable that consumers are tempted to migrate to these pirate offerings, noted Mulready.
Of course, the operators are looking to take action against these pirate rivals, and there has been significant recent action from Europol. Mulready pointed to a lawsuit instigated by the MPA and BREIN, which targeted three Dutch hosting providers, who they accuse of not handing over information about the people behind the Moonwalk CDN. After it was taken offline, 25 pirate services closed down.
Anonymity was central to that case, with the lawsuit’s main tenet being that the hosting providers had not done enough due diligence before accepting these people as customers. Mulready explained that while this is the case, the reality is that it is very easy to set up a streaming network these days, at a low cost, without providing any real identification.
This is where Irdeto comes in, to identify and then target such services and the people behind them, but the fact remains that it is very expensive to try and solve these problems through the legal system. Differences in local laws complicate things further, and the example of domain-based versus IP-based site blocking was used to show how courts can still get it wrong when they make the ‘correct’ decision.
The scale of pirate infringement makes anti-piracy work challenging, and to some end, it boils down to how good you are at web-crawling, content flagging, and source identification. These are processes that can be sped up with technological improvement, but you will often hit a human-process bottleneck that can’t be so easily overcome – once your systems have found pirate streams, and then have to wait on a person in the ISP to go and deactivate the offender’s account.
Mulready explained that Telegram is a major challenge too, as it has proven so popular with these pirate services. There are three main ways it is used, according to Mulready. The first is through private chat groups, which promote services and shares links to streams. A recent prosecution in Ghana shut down one such group, with 20,000 users.
The second method is simply sharing links to M3U (MP3 URL) playlists, which can be pasted into the VLC media player and provide instant access to piles of pirate content. These playlists are often promoted over social media too. The third approach is sharing clips or entire shows within Telegram itself, and while the privacy-focused messaging service does have a DMCA process, it is very unresponsive, in Irdeto’s experience.
We asked about the impact that Covid-19 had had on piracy, and Mulready explained that Irdeto had seen an immediate spike in P2P piracy – up 4% in March. Streaming piracy has also increased, and this is despite improvements in recent years from the social media services. Irdeto has seen pirate libraries increased, to make up for the lack of sports, but was also surprised by the speed that these pirates managed to integrate the archived games that the sports services rolled out to keep their legitimate customers appeased. Pirate IPTV services went as far as offering Covid-19 discounts, and some marketing their video quality as superior to Netflix – which downgraded its quality at peak times, in support of ISP networks. SVoD credential sharing also increased, noticeably, in the period.
The best pirates have become very good at dodging the content filters that these services use. Watermarking is good at tackling everyday pirates, said Mulready, but the most advanced ones have systems that are able to identify the watermarks in real-time, and then blur them out in the video feeds to avoid detection.
A number of recent raids have found these devices in the pirate head-ends, which are manipulating content from legitimate set tops, and feature multiple redundant feeds, in case a watermark slips through the net. Tackling these pirates requires millions of dollars and huge effort, as well as the cooperation of local police and government agencies.
We asked about the motivations behind piracy, about whether you could fundamentally change the landscape. Given the dearth of options, Mulready says that the old argument about the availability of content isn’t a valid excuse now. Chances are, you can find the show you want in your local market. The question is whether you want to pay the price you are asked to, by what is essentially a monopoly provider.
However, Mulready says there is plenty of research to suggest that casual pirates can be converted into legit customers – that pirate consumers are an opportunity for service providers, and not just consumers that would never pay for these services (as was assumed to be the case, a few years ago). Mulready thinks the industry is very aware of the spectrum of piracy, and that most consumers actually do want to do the right thing – paying for services, at a reasonable price, and without opening themselves up to the security risks associated with pirate services.
In Mulready’s experience, the big stick is not as successful at such conversions, and sophisticated operators are exploring just how to attract such pirate consumers back to the fold via a nice carrot. Working out the messaging that resonates with such customers is important, and there is mileage in stressing the harm perspective as a persuasive argument too.
Of course, Mulready agrees with our view that having over five separate SVoD services to juggle isn’t exactly a good user experience. He agrees that there is a play to be made here for consolidation, and pointed to Irdeto-parent MultiChoice’s new DStv Explora offering as an example. The decoder will feature content tiles from both Netflix and Amazon, alongside the pay TV provider, in a carousel view. MultiChoice says its DStv offering will morph into a pay TV super aggregator, and will carry more third-party services, on its pan-African satellite TV services.
From the piracy perspective, things are only going to get more sophisticated. Mulready stressed that things are only as strong as the weakest link in the rights chain, and with some properties licensed to over 100 different providers, the opportunities for pirates to gain access to this content and provide it to their global audiences are greatly expanded. To this end, operators need to cooperate, as the growth of international piracy is going to have a direct impact on their domestic bottom lines.