Pirates are getting smarter, and that’s a big problem for the authorities

The struggle between pirates and the authorities has been intriguing to follow and, as technology improves, it’s only going to grow more and more intense.

Kodi boxes and illegal addons have dominated the headlines over recent years, but the next big battle concerns something that has been around for some time, but you might never have noticed before: watermarking.

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Digital watermarks are deliberately subtle markers that can be used to find the source of pirate streams. However, pirates are fighting back.

“Pirates now have the capability to remove visual marks − things like conditional access, fingerprints and dots on the screen − that can be used to identify where a stream has originated from,” Mark Mulready, the VP of cybersecurity services at Irdeto, told Trusted Reviews.

“One thing I’ve learnt about pirates over the years is that they’re very resilient, and we’ve seen various efforts to defeat watermarking. You can crop the picture, you can rotate it, you can compress it, you can take multiple sources of content.

“There are devices now being sold for as little as $1600, which are quite sophisticated and let pirates remove or obscure the visual marks in a broadcast. What’s more, they can also overlay their own pirate logos and avatars.”

That’s a huge problem for broadcasters and anti-piracy groups. Without watermarking to rely on, copyright infringers become far more difficult to track down.

“In terms of the capability to remove visual marks, that’s where technologies like covert watermarking are now becoming increasingly important. The concept of a covert watermark is that pirates cannot observe these, and can’t obscure or remove them. That’s going to become increasingly important, particularly in the context of live sport,” Mulready continued.

“Watermarking has to be very robust. The watermark needs to be able to cope with whatever pirates throw at it. This is the current battleground, this is where it’s going to be fought out in the next few years, in terms of being able to identify the source of pirate streams.”

Mulready says that pirates are becoming more sophisticated, and that everyone on the other side of the battle has their work cut out trying to keep up.

To evade capture, many of them are now operating within closed social media groups, and only putting up live streams of sports events just before they begin.

Others, as we learned earlier this year, are avoiding detection by deliberately misspelling keywords, such as the names of content providers − think Sly Sports and Virmin TV − and film titles, on various platforms like eBay, Facebook and YouTube. If you’re clued up, you’ll know what to search for.

Mulready also expects to see more dynamic site-blocking, similar to the injunctions obtained by the Premier League and UEFA for the 2017/19 football season. However, while this measure appears to have worked quite well for the Premier League, data from Irdeto shows that millions of people still managed to watch Champions League games illegally last season, through Kodi, social media and dedicated pirate sites.

The ultimate aim for the authorities and anti-piracy organisations is to be able to detect illegal streams, find out who they’re being supplied by and shut them down, all within a matter of minutes.

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“Pirates are definitely getting smarter and more sophisticated,” Mulready added.

“Movie studios have required watermarking on premium content for some time, but we’re now starting to see sports rights owners move towards contractual obligations with regards to watermarking. Once the technology becomes more mainstream, I expect it will become a requirement if you want to be a licensee of premium sports in the future.

“Moving forwards, I think it’s fair to say that watermarking will be one of the most important tools − from a technology standpoint − for addressing piracy.”

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