Hidden price of piracy

Tech December 20, 2018 08:01

By Neil Gane, General Manager of AVIA’s Coalition Against Piracy (CAP)
Special to The Nation

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The fast transmission of digital data has facilitated access to online pirated content.  Among some consumers this has resulted in an expectation of getting ‘something for nothing’ – an unfortunate by-product of the internet era which has seen a huge devaluation in the work of artists, musicians, directors, actors, and others making  entertainment products.  

Online piracy technological ecosystems are continually changing, but what never changes is the criminality. Piracy is organised crime, pure and simple, with crime syndicates making substantial illicit revenues from the provision of stolen content. Many syndicates and individuals associated with the wholesale distribution of pirated content are involved in other criminal endeavours and there is a likelihood that  part of the illegal proceeds are used to finance other criminal activities.

Website and application (APK) streaming piracy are the current preferred methods of monetising stolen content.  Recently released consumer research undertaken by UK-based YouGov,has highlighted the increase of Illicit Streaming Devices (ISDs) usage amongst Thai  consumers. The research, commissioned by AVIA’s Coaltion Against Piracy (CAP), found that 45%of Thai consumers use ISDs to access pirated TV channels and video-on-demand content,with21% of these users admitting that they have subsequently cancelled their subscription to legal services.

An illicit streaming device (ISD) is a TV box that has been configured with an application (APK) that enables consumers to stream audio-visual content from an illegal streaming server. Configuring TV boxes in this way allows the consumer to access unauthorised premium TV, sports and films for the one-off price of the device and (often) a yearly APK subscription to access the content – with all the revenue going into the pockets of criminal syndicates or individuals benefiting from the spoils of such a crime.

It is the ease of use of these ISDs, the wide range of unauthorised content available for free or cheap subscriptions and the fact they are readily available from Bangkok malls or from a number of well-known online retailers, that has led to a sharp rise in their use by Thai consumers.

The damage that piracy does to the creative industries is without dispute. However, the damage done to consumers themselves, because of the nexus between content piracy and malware, is only beginning to be recognised. The European Union Intellectual Property Office very recently (September 2018) released a report on malware found on suspected piracy websites and concluded that such websites “commonly distribute various kinds of malware luring users into downloading and launching such files”. The research, which worked closely with the European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, concluded that “the threat landscape for malware distributed via copyright-infringing websites is more sophisticated than it might appear at first glance”.

Many Thaiconsumers are struggling to navigate their way through an often lawless internet landscape, including parents and their more tech savvy children. According to cybersecurity company Bitdefender, Thailand is ranked 11th in the world for exposure to cyber-attacks. Thailand has also, according to Palo Alto Networks,  become the world’s leading hotspot for cryptocurrency mining malware.With such a “click happy” user base, piracy sites and APKs are being used more and more as platforms to distribute such malicious malware.

Popular pirate sites, including the Pirate Bay, have been found to embed software or mining script into their website which will utilize the user’s CPU usage to create funds for the operators of the piracy site.

Last year a fake Netflix APK was discovered by cyber-security experts to be embedded with a remote access trojan (RAT) which could take control of a user’s device including its built-in video camera.This fake APK, downloaded from an unofficial source rather than from such legitimate stores as Google Play, was designed to take videos or photos of their victims in intimate settings as well as gain access to passwords, contact lists, emails and text messages.

In March this year, hackers were found to have embedded RAT spyware viruses into movie sub-titling applicationsdesigned to be downloaded onto ISDswhich use an open-source media player known as “Kodi”. The video players used within the Kodi boxes are particularly vulnerable to malware infection and consequently targeted by hackers.

The primary intent of these perpetrators is often to taunt, manipulate, and publicly humiliate their victims, who are often young females. Such nefarious activity can often lead to extortion and ‘sextortion’. Unlike TV boxes manufactured by legitimate platforms, few ISDs have a mechanism to update the box’s software when specific malware has been detected.  One could say they are a ready-made RAT trap for consumers

The urgency of the malware threat with hackers targeting the piracy ecosystems’ click-happy user-base still needs to be better understood and dealt with by governments and stakeholders.As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, what canThaihouseholds do to make informed decisions and be better able to safeguard themselves from the dark underbelly of the internet.

Only install apps and add-ons to your devices from trusted sources. Ensure device software, especially anti-virus and firewall protection is up to date and consider covering the webcam lens when it is not in use. And finally, stay away from piracy websites and piracy APKs. An appetite for “free” or paying cheap subscription rates for pirated content, blinkers users from the very real risks of malware infection. Sometimes downloading or streaming ‘something for nothing’ comes with a price.Malware is often a hidden price of piracy.

Neil Gane is the General Manager of AVIA’s Coalition Against Piracy (CAP), which includes leading video content creators and distributors in Asia including : beIN Sports, The Walt Disney Company, Fox Networks Group, HBO Asia, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Premier League, Turner Asia-Pacific, A&E Networks, Astro, BBC Worldwide, CANAL+, Cignal (Philippines), La Liga, Media Partners Asia, National Basketball Association, PCCW Media, Singtel, Sony Pictures Television Networks Asia, TVB,  TV5MONDE, True Visions, and Viacom International Media Networks.