Illegal broadcasting and football fighting: ‘These hackers just got smart’

On any given weekend, English football will be watched by millions of fans in the UK.

Live coverage of the Premier League is big business. Television rights are sold for billions of dollars each season, but hidden within the market is an ongoing challenge for stakeholders.

Illegal flows are a headache that won’t go away. For all the money generated by supporters who merely pay monthly subscriptions to approved partners and providers, a significant minority continue to watch the action unfold at home via illicit platforms.

Piracy is nothing new and is not a problem unique to football or the UK. However, there are concerns that the prevalence of pirated content – across the sports and entertainment industry – is increasing. Look for it and it can always be found.

“There’s no locker, it’s a big problem that just doesn’t seem to go away,” says Paolo Pescatore, technology and media analyst at PP Foresight. “The industry, whether it’s Hollywood or live sports, needs to be addressed head-on because these pirates are getting smart when it comes to distributing this premium content online.”

Like the challenges facing the music industry at the turn of the century, technological developments have opened the doors to live sports piracy. It may have been the occasional pub showing games it shouldn’t, but illegal content has gradually seeped into living rooms.

In addition to websites that intentionally infringe copyright every time a live game is shown, set-top boxes and “firesticks” containing modified software can also provide access to coverage from around the world. This usually comes with a one-off annual payment and is a fraction of the amounts required to watch games via the UK Premier League’s broadcast partners: Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime.

There is also content that should not be available to viewers in the UK, including kick-off at 3pm on Saturday. Feeds are taken from international broadcasters, such as BeIN and NBC, to avoid the traditional blackout that prevents live football being shown on Saturday afternoons in the UK. The attractions are obvious but viewing content through an unauthorized source – free or paid – amounts to illegal streaming.

The Premier League is confident in its data which shows consumption of illegal streams in the UK is declining due to comprehensive anti-piracy programmes, but other research suggests that piracy is still experiencing a clear ‘malicious and rising trend’ across Europe.

The Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAPA) released a report in December stating that 17 million Europeans between the ages of 16 and 74 viewed illegal content in 2021, with the youngest users being the most prominent.

This study had a broad scope and was not limited to live football but reflected a pattern that sees illegal Internet Protocol television (IPTV, delivery of television content over IP networks) use climbing across the continent. The legitimate industry was reported to have lost nearly £3 billion ($3.7 billion) in revenue in 2021 alone, and those regulating illegal production were said to have made in the region £1 billion.

“This study highlights the very real harm done to legitimate pay-TV providers through the widespread use of illegal IPTV piracy by citizens of Europe,” said Mark Mulready, Co-Chair of AAPA, and Vice President of Online Services at Irdeto.

This is the era of IPTV. It’s how we watch Netflix, Disney, Amazon, and every other streaming provider, and it marks a gradual shift away from satellite television, offering greater flexibility and choice to consumers.

Internal hacking is also becoming a growing headache for the authorities.

“The transition to IP and streaming was inevitable because we saw it in other genres, like music,” says Pescatore. “When you go towards online distribution, it inevitably leads to the emergence of illegal streaming.”

Often used to facilitate illegal streams, devices such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Google Chromecast do not violate laws in their unmodified form but are modified and sold with unauthorized applications that allow users to access copyrighted content. Devices can also be missold as legitimate and legal options for the buyer.

“We don’t have detailed figures on consumption available, but I can tell you I don’t think it’s decreasing,” says Mathieu Harel, director of products and anti-piracy services at Viaccess-Orca, a market leader in content protection based in France.

“IP networks are on the rise. Buying illegal subscriptions, watching content on your smart TV, dedicated set-top box… These networks are the real threat.”

Instead of going after individual viewers in a tedious and labor-intensive process, authorities usually target those who sell the devices for profit to stop the problem at its source. Several trials have been successful in recent years, and prison sentences are common.

Paul Faulkner was sentenced to 16 months in prison at Liverpool Crown Court in the summer of 2021. He ran the IPTV TV Solutions service, providing illegal access to content involving Premier League football.

Faulkner pleaded guilty to numerous copyright and fraud offenses, including accessing pirated content for his own use. This charge alone amounted to four months of his total sentence.

Stephen King was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison in 2019 for running the Dreambox streaming operation. Last year, Warwick Crown Court ordered King to return £963,000 to the public purse or face extending his sentence for a further six years.

“This finding clearly shows that the provision of illegal streams is a criminal offense which leads to prison sentences and significant financial consequences,” said Premier League lawyer Kevin Plumb.

“We are delighted that the courts have recognized the seriousness of the offenses related to piracy and the Premier League has asked that all monies recovered be returned to public bodies, including law enforcement agencies, to help them continue the wonderful work they are doing in helping to bring people like this to justice.”

Kieron Sharp, general manager of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), was also clear. “For those people who use services like this, don’t think that’s a gray area. It’s not, it’s against the law.”

The Premier League wants to protect its official rights partners, such as BT Sport (Picture: Visionhaus)

The Premier League is involved in its biggest trial of a hacking network and the trial, which is ongoing at Birmingham Crown Court, is due to conclude in March. There was also involvement from the English Premier League in a global anti-piracy program that worked alongside Spanish police and Europol to shut down Mobdro, which was operating as the world’s largest illegal streaming app.

This robust approach highlights the threat being faced. Failing to protect desirable and copyrighted material could in theory diminish the value of television broadcasting rights, and the Premier League is actively working with organisations, such as FACT and local broadcast partners Sky Sports and BT Sport, to combat piracy.

“The protection of the Premier League’s copyright and the investment made by our broadcast partners is extremely important to us and the future health of English football,” says the Premier League. “The ability of clubs to develop and acquire talented players, build and improve stadiums, and support communities and schools all depends on the ability to market, sell and protect commercial rights.”

The High Flight and the EFL have set up email addresses for supporters to report any illegal streams or pubs where content is being viewed illegally. An increased focus on streaming content, with passes being sold by clubs for £10 per game, has led the Football Association of England to launch a campaign to discourage the use of hacking coverage. Early in the 2020-21 season, she said more than 7,000 illegal streams of EFL were caught, with an average of 170 people watching each one.

“You need a coherent effort between everyone,” Pescatore says. “The impact in the end will be very visible because unless it is addressed, customers will turn around and say they are not paying and they will cut back and watch illegally.

“There are solutions available with DRM, DRM, and watermarking where you can actually track where that content is being streamed. But these guys are very smart and create new streams quickly. It doesn’t seem like that’s something they can sort right away.”

It’s a thankless task, Harrell agrees. “When we’re dealing with anti-piracy, our job is to create frustration,” he says. It is impossible to get rid of piracy completely.

“We can use Google to make sure that a legal offer is the best search and not an illegal site. When we work with social networks there are mechanisms in place to remove the distribution of illegally distributed content.

“In the UK there is an IP ban, where a website is blocked, and the Premier League uses that during matches. All leagues are very aware of this issue.”

This month, West Mercia Police, a force covering Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, announced their intention to visit 1,000 homes in a crackdown on illegal influx.

The targets were found in a database of customers believed to be accessing unauthorized content. A previous raid on a provider in the UK had provided the information for officials to act upon and promised to notify those found guilty of illegal broadcasting.

“Operation Raider” was a joint project between West Mercia Police, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) and FACT that “deployed cutting-edge digital methods to identify and detect people who break the law,” according to Detective Inspector Matt McNellis.

“Illegal flow is often used to finance serious organized crime,” he added. “West Mercia’s Cybercrime Unit is committed to preventing this source of criminal revenue and minimizing the harm that organized crime groups can do to our communities.”

This is a threat that the authorities are keen to clarify. A direct link has been drawn between those who view illegal streams and victims of cybercrime.

Users can be hacked or devices can be infected with viruses. A recent report by Opentext Security Solutions noted that illegal flows “open a gateway for criminals to gain access to bank accounts, commit fraud, and install malware.”

Not that it will stop illegal broadcasting. There are plenty ready to take their chances for the rewarding content they can access, including any one of the 380 Premier League matches played each season.

Closing those windows of observation is the unrelenting challenge.

(Top images: Getty Images; Styling: Eamon Dalton)

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