the dirt on satellite TV piracy

Cunning users leveraged the Internet to completely bypass traditional methods of satellite TV, through card sharing

While the downloading of pirated films, TV, games and music is a subject of much attention from the media, web users, content creators and legislators, little attention is paid in the public eye to the problems faced by broadcasters in securing their distribution platforms.  Exclusive research by NetNames into the state of PayTV piracy offers an insight into the worrying trend of internet card sharing, which allows thousands of users to access premium content via a single subscription.

As soon as paid television networks were launched in the 1970s, some users sought to gain access to content without paying. Various techniques could be used, for instance, physically removing the line filters that blocked access to premium content, or (as protection became more sophisticated) by reverse engineering encryption systems. Card based access is the most typical method used today for protection. By scrambling the video stream with a secret key (known as a control word), content can in theory, only be decrypted by those possessing a valid ‘decryption card’.

Companies such as NDS and NAGRA have developed increasingly complicated systems of encryption and obfuscation in attempts to stop cloning or emulation of cards. As with a fully cloned or emulated card, users can decrypt the video stream of any channel to which the original card had access. Cards are now routinely paired with receivers to try to prevent simple card cloning, effectively limiting use to a single customer. This process has helped limit signal piracy but as Jeff Goldblum explains in Jurassic Park “…life, uh…finds a way”. Just as the island's female dinosaurs managed to find a way to breed without restriction, pay TV pirates soon found a loophole to breed a new vector of attack.

Instead of engaging in an ever-escalating arms race against protection companies, some users realized that they could leverage the power of the Internet to completely bypass the traditional methods of decrypting channels by creating a network of trusted friends and users. Decryption cards could effectively be shared across that network, allowing a single premium subscription to power the viewing habits of many network members. This opened up the possibility of access to thousands of channels for little or no cost, in a process commonly known as ‘card sharing’.

By using a network enabled receiver, users without a valid subscription card are able to access the encrypted video stream. Compounding this issue for broadcasters is the fact that this process takes up a very small overhead in terms of bandwidth, allowing a single user to serve multiple decrypted channels to multiple peers over a regular home broadband account. Thanks to the peer-to-peer nature of the system, a vast network of users can be created, often spanning continents, all using just a few valid subscriptions to view content.

While many users choose to share their decryption cards within a small private group, commercial card sharing systems also exist (known in the community as payservers), which are open to all and offer a more simplified set up process. Subscriptions to a payserver generally run to about €20 a month (about US $26) and 24-48 hour test packages are generally available for little or no cost.  The packages on offer from payservers usually include access to a wide range of different providers spanning a number of different satellite providers such as Sky TV or Canal Digital. When a user attempts to access a channel for which decryption is required, CCcam boots up and remotely relays the request to the payserver; effectively decrypting the channel using one of the many different subscription cards at their disposal.

Given that it is unlikely for anyone to have access to both the European and North American satellite belts simultaneously, sites and communities dedicated to card sharing tend to be geographically discrete with payservers focused on either the European or North American markets. Payservers focused on DirecTV or Dish Network also tends to employ additional security measures, most likely aimed at avoiding potential prosecution.

While technical solutions to card sharing are potentially feasible, these could be potentially costly to broadcasters in terms of equipment replacement for existing customers. However, as card sharing grows in popularity broadcasters will find themselves coming under increasing pressure from rights holders to clamp down on those exploiting their systems.

Written by Ricky Bruce, Piracy Intelligence Analyst, NetNames

30  May 2013

Article extracts from NetNames’ Scrutiny publication.

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