In this retrospective article, Brian Paxton reviews the content security challenges that have arisen as media turned to digital over the last 25 years. Starting with music and then looking at TV, we see how these industries have evolved over time to combat content piracy.

The media industry has evolved enormously over the last 25 years. In 1991, we were consuming content over analogue broadcast TV and recording our favorite shows on our VHS recorders. Now in 2016, we are consuming content at home and on the move, across a wide variety of devices. What’s more, the range of content presented to us is of a higher quality than even before and we’re able to watch it when we choose to. Throughout this time, rights owners have sought to protect their content from illegal distribution.

The Music Industry’s Answer to Piracy

Within the media sector, the music industry has arguably gone through the greatest upheaval in the last 25 years. Back in 1991, most music piracy was on audio cassette. Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was available, but wasn’t widely adopted outside Japan; and CD writers had yet to appear. Piracy was therefore largely limited by degradation in quality of subsequent tape copies, and the size of personal contact networks.

That all changed with the release of the MP3 audio standard in 1993. MP3 provided a means of compressing digital music tracks: this small file size made the music ‘portable’. MP3 players started to appear a few years later, popularized by the Rio PMP300 player in 1998. As digital files, MP3 music could be replicated with ease and it wasn’t long before illegal file sharing took off. This was the first time that consumers had the ability to share bit-perfect digital copies of music ‘ripped’ from CDs.

The combination of digital copying, internet access and peer-to-peer networking led to consumer copyright infringement on an industrial scale. The file-sharing service Napster was launched in 1999, with rapid take up. Even though most home consumers only had slow dial-up internet connections, the popularity of Napster grew. In university campuses with faster connections, usage was high. The service’s usage peaked in 2001, but was shut down later that year after an injunction taken out by the Recording Industry Association of America, on the grounds of illegal transfer of copyrighted music. Unfortunately, the result was an upswing in usage thanks to the publicity generated by the court case!

In the same year, Apple launched iTunes, which gave users the ability to download music onto Apple portable devices and playback on laptops. In time, Apple launched its own music purchase store, allowing sharing of content between a limited number of ‘household’ devices. Usage restrictions were initially constrained by use of FairPlay, the Apple Digital Rights Management (DRM) system, however this was removed by 2009 following a similar move by Amazon.

To the present, iTunes remains a popular source of content, and its launch turned the music industry business model on its head. Purchasing albums is no longer the norm, and has been replaced by single track purchases. Consumers have found it easy to download and share large amounts of content, which has eroded the revenue stream of the distributors and recording artists. Since 2008, the growth in streaming and download services, such as Spotify, have further changed the scene, with the concept of ‘ownership’ of material by a user giving way to a ‘perpetual subscription’ model. Indeed, Apple now offers a subscription based service too.

With TV Content, Piracy Finds New Routes

Turning now to video… In the early 90s, Pay TV delivery was exclusively by analogue cable or satellite delivery. TV operators protected their content against illegal access using a Set Top Box and consumer smartcard. However, the maturity of the technology within smartcards at the time was low, and many systems were hacked. Experts – backed by organized crime – would reverse-engineer smartcards to produce clones for sale, or to develop code allowing legitimate smartcards to be reprogrammed or simulated in software. These pirate smartcards allowed the consumer to upgrade to an ‘all you can eat’ package for free. In response, TV operators, in conjunction with the system security vendors, then issued software downloads to patch the problem. Sadly, this only ‘bought time’ against an attack, and ultimately new smartcards (at substantial cost) had to be issued to consumers, before the cycle began again.

This pattern of attack continued through the late 90s as TV operators migrated to digital delivery platforms. As Pay TV became more popular around the world, the interest in obtaining services illicitly also increased. This was (and still is) seen as a significant income opportunity for professional pirates and hackers in cahoots with organized criminal networks.

The advent of broadband and always-on internet led to a rapid rise in a new method of circumventing access controls: so-called key sharing (also called card sharing). Key sharing is achieved by intercepting the key used to encrypt the broadcast signal as it passes between the smartcard and STB decoder chip. Legitimate card subscriptions are used to intercept these keys which are then distributed over internet in real time to key sharing ‘subscribers’. Anyone with a generic STB can subscribe to a key sharing service.

In the last few years, large operators have been getting on top of key sharing by rolling out their most advanced ‘countermeasures’ (hardware based key encryption). This, along with the ubiquity of high speed broadband, has shifted the focus of illegal content sharing to re-streaming. Content is captured, re-encoded and re-distributed over internet in real time, to be made available to users through a simple app or website. The experience can be of variable quality, ranging from free streams infested with pop-up ads to fairly sophisticated paid services giving ‘professional looking’ EPGs.

Re-streaming services are very convenient for the end-user, and are regarded as today’s pre-eminent threat to Pay TV. Low-cost IPTV STBs are readily available to access these services which can offer many hundreds of channels from around the world in a single easy-to-obtain package for a low monthly fee. Key sharing still requires a physical STB and card, and access to the cable network or a satellite dish; re-streaming services require little more than a device with an internet connection.

Piracy Goes Social

The introduction of live streaming services such a Periscope and Facebook Live have shifted the goal-posts in the last two years. Everyday social media users can now re-stream content to their friends using a simple smartphone app. For rights owners, there is no longer a small number of illegal re-streamers to target, but rather, many thousands of “nano-pirates”. The Mayweather v Pacquiao fight in 2015 was heavily pirated using Periscope and other apps.

Rights owners are responding in a number of ways to this new threat. A holistic view is required to identify the sources of illegal streams, and a range of measures – technological, legal and commercial – are being used to counteract the threat. New technologies are being deployed to tackle piracy at every stage of the delivery chain. For example, fingerprinting technologies allow for quick detection of uploaded copies of copyrighted content, and watermarking content can be used to identify the source of the content at either the operator or individual subscriber level.

Google Infringement Requests.jpg


What Next?

And so it continues. New technologies give opportunities to both pirate and protect content. However, with content protection methods getting more sophisticated, content now available via a number of legitimate channels, and the existence of a number of payment options for consumers, we may see the battle against piracy turn towards the content owners favor. <>

To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector


[i] Google Transparency Report.

[Contributing Authors: Tom Thomas and Pascal Hetzscholdt]