The satellite TV industry still relies upon encryption in its various forms to protect its subscription TV content from being pirated - stolen. Broadcasters scramble the content before transmitting it to the client's home where it is unscrambled by a satellite receiver containing the broadcaster's smart card and encryption key. Anyone with a satellite receiver can receive the signal from the satellite but without the broadcaster's smart card and encryption key, all that they receive is a scrambled TV picture.
In the early days, broadcasters were playing a game of cat and mouse with the TV Pirates
Early TV piracy took the form of cloned smart cards. It was a small scale, messy business that involved fake smart cards being written with the details and encryption key of a legitimate account holder. The fake cards worked for a while until the broadcaster discovered the compromised account and de-activated the smart card. To continue to watch (illegally) the user had to make a trip back to the TV pirate's den to get the de-activated smart card re-configured with the details of another legitimate account holder - a game of cat and mouse.
Once the pirate had obtained the smart card details of a legitimate account holder, they were able to programme those details into as many fake smart cards as they liked which they sold to their 'customers' at a lesser price than was being charged for legal access to the broadcasters' scrambled content. As a result, the cloned smart card business was a lucrative little number for the illegal TV pirates but there was a limit to how big they could grow their illegitimate businesses because their 'business' model relied upon their 'customers' travelling backwards and forwards to the pirate's den to have their de-activated smart cards re-configured. This meant that the card cloning pirates or their 'agents' operated within their own specific regions of the country.
Card cloning TV piracy was a serious problem for the legitimate TV companies and broadcasters and they treated it very seriously but the real threat to the legitimate broadcasters' Pay-TV business model came with the introduction of the Dreambox and other systems like it.
The introduction of the card sharing Dreambox was a major blow for the legitimate TV companies and broadcasters because it enabled the TV pirates to 'sell' illegal access to scrambled TV content without the need to supply each of their 'customers' with a cloned smart card because the Dreambox satellite receiver doesn't need to have a cloned smart card fitted into it. All that it needs is access to a legitimate smart card over the internet. This meant that the TV pirates 'businesses' were no longer geographically restricted to an area within travelling distance to and from the pirate's den.
The Dreambox satellite TV receiver was the catalyst that turned TV Piracy into a global enterprise because using a central server and the internet, it enabled the TV pirate to remotely supply the details that were needed to unscramble pay-TV signals. With the introduction of the Dreambox satellite TV receiver, the TV pirate can be in one country and their 'client' can be in another - it doesn't matter.
Ironically, one of the features that the manufacturers included in the Dreambox and other similar systems was the facility to secure the Dreambox servers which enables the TV pirates to restrict access to those people who are paying them a fee for the privilege.
At the client side, the Dreambox only requires approximately 16KB of download internet bandwidth to operate efficiently but on the server side, lots of upload internet bandwidth is required and this is a problem for the TV pirates.
Upload internet bandwidth was and still is in short supply and it is expensive. To supply a service to a hundred distant Dreamboxes, the TV pirate needs at least 12.5 Mbits of 'constant' upload bandwidth which they almost certainly will not be able to obtain. This does not however, stop them from trying but as we're talking about unscrupulous individuals who are involved in a highly illegal activity, does anyone really expect them to properly monitor how many clients they are supplying and to apply a reasonable contention ratio to their service ? No - they load them with as many 'clients' as they can ! What are they going to do ? Complain to Trading Standards !
As a result, when the internet is busy or, when lots of 'customers' want to watch a popular programme simultaneously, shortage of upload bandwidth on the server side causes the clients' picture to repeatedly stop and re-start and eventually freeze altogether.
There are other problems too. When the legitimate TV company discovers which smart card the pirate is using, they de-activate it but not before 'playing' with the TV pirate for a while, spoiling the quality of the pirated TV service and (if it is possible) worsening the reputation of the TV pirate.
That's right - all's fair in Love and War ! The smart card can be repeatedly switched on and off by the TV company which ruins the pirated TV service or for maximum impact, they usually switch it off completely just as a major football match or other popular sporting event is about to start. The TV pirate has absolutely NO control over the service that their 'customers' are paying for.
Then there's the internet connection to the TV pirate's Dreambox server - once the legitimate TV companies and broadcasters know the service provider and the IP address - well, let's just say that it is an easy target !
Newer satellites and satellite TV receivers also support newly introduced security features that make it virtually impossible for the TV pirates to run an illegal card sharing scheme succesfully. The TV pirates are now restricted to running card sharing schemes on systems that are still using the older technology and the TV companies and broadcasters with money to invest can now quite easily protect their interests or, can they ?
The availability of faster internet connections and the introduction of new inexpensive IPTV set top boxes have provided the TV pirates with another way to deliver illegal access to pay-TV channels.
With different equipment on the server side and a slight modification in the formula and method, TV pirates are now able to completely circumvent the encryption techniques being used by the TV broadcast companies.
The old equipment and method enabled the TV Pirate to use the internet to deliver the encryption key to unscramble the TV picture at the 'customer' side. The new equipment and method however, requires that the TV picture is unscrambled before it is re-broadcast to the new IPTV set top box which is located at the 'customer' side.
The type of equipment and method may have changed but the TV Pirate's 'business' model remains the same - to charge a fee for providing 'customers' with illegal access to subscription TV channels.
There are however, similarities in the two different methods for example, the TV pirate must still obtain one or more legitimate user accounts with the official TV broadcaster - it should be noted at this point that obtaining a legitimate user account with the official broadcaster entitles the account holder to single-user access to the designated subscription channels and definitely does not authorise them to share with or re-broadcast the channels and programmes to any other individual(s) or entities.
The process begins with the TV pirate setting up a satellite dish and receiver (with official smart card) which provides access to the official broadcasters' unscrambled subscription channels.
The unscrambled TV picture is fed into a server where it is converted into a data stream and compressed before being fed into a second broadcast server which distibutes it to the IPTV set top boxes.
Alternatively, the TV pirate can buy these services off-the-shelf with little if any monetary investment in equipment or, expertise.
Prior to publishing this article, I spoke to a number of TV set top box manufacturers/suppliers and learned that they had all seen a surge in the amount of enquiries that they had received. Most of them had recently sent out samples and some had received orders and already delivered product so, it seems, that this type of service is already being offered by a number of individuals/companies some of whom no doubt, are already involved in card sharing TV piracy.
Three suppliers that I spoke with are also offering/selling the additional equipment and/or, services that are needed to set up an end-to-end solution quite simply. The set top boxes cost between $50 and $75 dollars plus delivery and a 'wholesale' service costs anything from 10 Euros per month.
Interestingly, some of the manufacturers/suppliers of the TV set top boxes told me that they will not supply individuals or, companies who are illegally pirating subscription TV channels however, I doubt that they are policing this policy because several TV pirates are already offering their 'customers' illegal access to Sky Movies, Sky Sports and other pay-TV subscription channels.
Offering the facility to watch subscription channels without a legitimate account and without paying the official broadcaster is illegal and advertising and providing such services attracts not only the attention of the potential customer, but also the attention of the official broadcaster who will no doubt use whatever resources and techniques they have at their disposal to put a stop to it.
The end result is that the TV pirates' customers lose out to the value of the IPTV set top box that they have purchased and any amount that they have paid in advance payments for the service.