Video piracy is alive and well and quite dangerous, actually: Irdeto

irdeto video piracy
Roger Harvey, regional director of ANZ, SEA & Japan at Irdeto, explains how that 'free' streaming video service might be using your computer to mine Bitcoins (no, really).

If you thought video piracy is mainly about unauthorized downloads, and that the rise of streaming video would solve the problem, you’d be wrong on both counts. Pirates are adapting with the times – the good news is that so are content owners and video service providers. Roger Harvey, regional director of ANZ, SEA & Japan at Irdeto, debriefed Disruptive.Asia editor-in-chief John C Tanner on the state of play in the video piracy wars – and how there’s more at stake here than lost revenues.

Disruptive.Asia: How bad is the video piracy problem in Asia – is it getting better or worse?

Roger Harvey: The fact is that wherever you get reliable internet you will also see an uptick in piracy. As countries get their infrastructure to a certain level, you will see piracy develop – that includes all forms of internet piracy, and it is all across Asia now. That is the short answer – if you look at countries with no reliable broadband under 3 Mbps, you simply won’t see it.

In fact, we have seen some massive piracy numbers in our recent surveys. We did one across 30 countries earlier this year, and what we found was that 52% of people had watched pirated video content. That is shocking in itself, but actually the good news is that 49% of people said they would stop watching pirated content if they knew what the real impact was on the movie industry. For us, this proves that there is definitely a need for education.

Video piracy used to be mostly fake DVDs and file sharing – how has that changed?

There are three main types of piracy we see in Asia, the fastest-growing of which, at the moment, is what we call ISDs [illicit streaming devices]. These are devices that need an IP address and an HDMI connection, and they go and find content. We found one that had over 1,000 channels attached to it, streaming content over the internet. And subscribers will pay, say, $10 a month. So these ISDs are definitely one of the biggest problems you’ll see in Asia.

So how do you stop them?

We shut them down. We shut one down the other day, in fact, where the content owner was a huge sporting body in the UK. We did a lot of research, bought some of the boxes, worked out where they were hooked in, where the money trail went and we found there were 2 million subscribers and a thousand channels attached to this thing; ISPs were involved as well. It was big. We handed it over to Europol and eventually there were eight arrests, luxury cars were confiscated, private aircraft, you name it. So, we do shut them down, but it takes a lot of forensic analysis, plus good relationships with law enforcement bodies around the world.

You can find them online, so we also take down ads on, say, Alibaba. We can stop the supply in a number of ways – we can find suppliers, we can look for ‘fingerprints’. We can shut them down that way.

So, that’s the first [type of piracy]. The second one peer-to-peer. This used to be the biggest, but it has dropped off a little. We have 150 people in our anti-piracy group now, and we can see where the content is coming from, where it is going to, the linking sites and who the consumers are, all in graphical form. We can therefore see where the 80% is that we need to hit. We have automated connections into the Googles of this world, and we can take these things down in real time. We can also do some site blocking. So, we are getting on top of this one.

The third one, the one that is growing like crazy is live streaming, mainly sports. And, of course, you have to tackle this in real time. It is no good fixing the problem two hours later, when the game or whatever is over. You have to find the source in real time, preferably in the minutes leading up to the beginning of the game. We do this as a service as well, for sporting bodies, and we can stop a lot of revenue leakage.

One interesting area is social media, where there is definitely a live streaming problem. That said, they are becoming very responsive and most of them are putting in tools to help prevent it, and there is a lot of work going on there. One example was working with a big US sporting body that was having a problem, and we were able to show them that the problem was coming from just two servers, so we were able to help them solve the problem pretty quickly.

One interesting angle to these new forms of piracy is that it’s not just about content owners losing money – there’s also the danger of malware, isn’t there?

There is. We found an example just recently. It was a browser-based one and when you subscribed their ‘free’ television service, the browser was placing a Trojan on your PC. What was funny was that it wasn’t after your passwords or anything – it was actually mining Bitcoins. The only thing the subscriber might notice was that the PC was running a bit slow, because it was doing all this background work.

So that’s an amusing example, but yes, malware is a huge problem. These criminal outfits are certainly not above stealing passwords and bank details while offering you ‘free’ content. And this needs to be part of the education process. You remember the days when Napster was a big deal, nine times out of 10 you weren’t downloading music but some sort of virus or Trojan or something. I think what happened there was that parents in particular realized that downloading free music simply wasn’t worth it, because the criminals behind it would steal your details if they could.

The malware angle must be a great hook for the education process – especially these days when people are more aware of things like phishing, ransomware and personal data getting stolen.

That is true as well. I actually remember when I joined Irdeto, back in 2001, the then head of security said there were basically three things that would keep you secure. You need technology, law enforcement and you need education. And that has not changed, except that years ago it was about breaking encryption. Now encryption is so strong and replaceable over the air, so that has gone away. Now you buy a splitter and steal content at the HDMI level – you don’t even have to hack anything. No one is trying to hack boxes any more.

We are now working on watermarking, where you cannot see it or hear it, it is extremely robust. It looks like black magic when you see it – if you were using an iPhone for example I can tell exactly where the content came from. The same is true of OTT content. Watermarking is one of the most important tools going forward.

There was a big Hollywood studio that was losing revenue through piracy. It was incredibly high-quality, and it was coming out the day after the film was released. We watermarked their next release, then got our web crawlers to hunt down the source, which turned out to be one of their overseas distributors. They were able to confront them, and things returned to normal.

Watermarking is obviously a key tool in combating piracy – what are the other tools you need?

You need very advanced web crawling technology, which we developed with our 150 people. There is a lot of automation, but you need humans as well, without doubt. The second thing you need is global reach into law enforcement agencies. We have been developing these relationship over 40 years, so when we ring the FBI, they know who we are. The third thing is techniques like watermarking, which allows you to stop playing ‘Whack a Mole’ and begin to chop the heads off the snakes.

What about technologies such big data and AI – what role could they play?

Good question. We collect an enormous amount of data, for sure, in the process of crawling the web. The operators find that data enormously useful, because it shows them what they haven’t got – because people are ‘stealing’ it – what is popular and so on. We can see it from the piracy point of view, but they can use it to provide content that is not available. It is a lot of data!

You really need scale now. And yes, we are automating as much as we can, and definitely AI is going to be a huge factor in analyzing all that data, for sure.

Even though piracy is proliferating online, you have greater capabilities to combat it than you did ten, even five years ago. Is it getting easier to track down the bad guys?

Another good question. We certainly do have much better technology, but actually the limiting factor is the legal framework within each country. It differs so widely. But we do help in lobbying, and were active in changing the copyright laws in Australia, for example. There are a lot of countries in Asia that have limited laws to support our efforts in stopping this. We can’t enforce without the legal infrastructure.

And presumably the pirates know to base their operations in those countries with lax laws.

That’s right. You’ll often find they’re based in an Eastern bloc country, and payments go through tax havens and so on. But there is nothing anonymous about the internet and you can still take down internet addresses. It doesn’t stop you but it makes it harder and it slows you down, for sure.

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